Sivasakthi, ATK Mohun Bagan’s strength in depth among key takeaways
It was a season where ATK Mohun Bagan coach Juan Ferrando traded the passing game for pragmatism and lifted the Indian Super League (ISL) title
Mumbai City FC being in a league of their own but going home early because Bengaluru FC hit the high notes at the right time along with ATK Mohun Bagan (who decided being champions merited a change of name); the emergence of Sivasakthi Narayanan and Mehtab Singh; Kiyan Nassiri showing nerve, nous and verve; Lallianzuala Chhangte being the first Indian to be adjudged best player and Dimitri Petratos showing why he was part of the 2018 World Cup summed up the ninth season of the Indian Super League (ISL) which saw a walkout whose consequences will be felt long after Kerala Blasters left the pitch in Bengaluru.
It was a season where ATK Mohun Bagan coach Juan Ferrando traded the passing game for pragmatism and like Hyderabad FC’s Manolo Marquez, opted for defensive solidity. One where Mumbai City FC scored a record 56 goals but still the overall tally slipped to 345 from 354 though there were 117 games instead of 115.
What didn’t change was East Bengal’s poor run along with those of NorthEast United and Chennaiyin FC. And that the mostly good performances from match officials were blighted by a few bad calls.
Making the league phase a procession, Mumbai City FC sealed the top spot in Goa on February 11 being unbeaten in 18 games (14 wins and four draws) including 11 consecutive wins, a record. But their next game of consequence came on March 7 and the gap gobbled their momentum.
Even though 2022 was annus horribilis, Bengaluru FC never stopped believing. The next three months saw them turn the season around. That too by starting Chhetri on the bench. “To be honest, it was the hardest decision of my career,” said coach Simon Grayson.
In Narayanan he trusted and the 22-year-old didn’t disappoint. Along with Roy Krishna, Javi Hernandez, a clutch of India regulars and Chhetri as impact substitute (he scored in three of the last four knockout games), they got Bengaluru FC to a save and a miss in the shootout from their second ISL title.
Vishal Kaith though ensured it would be the only one for ATK Mohun Bagan. The team that won three of the first six ISL titles as ATK will from 2023-24 be known as Mohun Bagan Super Giants, said owner Sanjiv Goenka in Margao on Saturday. Cause for rancour among some removed, the champions got a warm welcome here on Sunday.
In a sport with little return on investment, Goenka has never shirked from spending on the first team. Ashish Rai and Ashqiue Kuruniyan joined this season and Anwar Ali should next term. From ISL1, the replacements for injured players have been as good (think: Dejan Lekic, Henrique Sereno). This time, Slavko Damjanovic slotted into central defence like he and Pritam Kotal had been playing together for years. Glan Martins helped stop Bengaluru FC from hitting on the break in the final and Federico Gallego became an option for Hugo Boumous. All three came in January.
“Four titles for Mr Goenka! You realise how difficult that is when you see a player of Sandesh Jhingan’s calibre lose four finals,” said a Bengaluru FC player.
ATK Mohun Bagan also had to deal with dips in form and a slew of injuries. The first they overcame by Ferrando seeking space behind full backs and staying compact defensively. The second by the depth in their squad though Manvir Singh didn’t forget to thank the medical staff.
Ferrando also shut out the noise about the team lacking a striker, kept encouraging Liston Colaco, gave Nassiri game time and got Kuruniyan to beat an ankle injury and play 54 minutes in the final. All of them had important inputs in the final.
“It is not how you start but how you finish that is important,” said Colaco, holding up the gleaming medallion at the mixed zone in Margao. That central defender Sumit Rathi was comfortable in the final despite having played little all through the season was proof of hours of work on the training ground. “I am now looking forward to a shower and sleep,” said Ferrando after the final. Felicitations on Sunday and Monday though meant he got little of it.