It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. There couldn’t be a better way to describe ATK’s “historic” triumph in the “closed-door” 2019-20 Indian Super League (ISL 2019-20) final at Fatorda on Saturday night (March 14).
Antonio Habas’ boys did a highly admirable job to beat Chennaiyin FC 3-1 and record their third triumph in six editions. A truly momentous occasion but there wasn’t a soul in the stands to appreciate. Football sans fans is not what it is all about, however intense the battle is. Habas and his men were distinctly unlucky to bag the title in front of empty galleries.
But then, some may call them fortunate, too. That the final could be played was an achievement by itself. Especially when every other sporting event in the country came to a screeching halt because of the Coronavirus crisis.
It is indeed interesting that the ISL final could take place when the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided to stop all football activities. A press release informing the ISL final to be “held behind closed doors” was issued on Thursday, March 12.
There was no way to find whether the decision had the approval of AIFF league committee since the release remained silent on it. On Friday the 13th, the federation followed suit. In a rather strange way but true to nature way, though. It announced a meeting of the clubs to discuss the situation. And then took a decision before the meeting could actually take place.
Remaining I-League matches will be played behind closed doors, it announced. But all hell broke loose when West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said she won’t allow the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal Derby to be played on March 15. She wanted the match to be cancelled, no matter what the AIFF decided.
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What followed thereafter was interesting. AIFF president Praful Patel was informed of Ms. Banerjee’s decision. The federation remained silent for nearly 24 hours. On Saturday, (March 14) afternoon, it released a statement saying all matches from Sunday till March 31 stand postponed.
One doesn’t understand why Saturday (March 14) matches were spared. Then again, maybe one can. After all, it was a matter of ISL. If the idea was to offer relief to teams who had already reached away venues, then Aizawl FC, too, should have received the benefit. They were already in Ludhiana to play Punjab FC on Sunday.
Well, there is a golden rule in Indian football, especially under the current circumstances. Not every question should be expected to get answered. So, better concentrate on what transpired on the pitch because, luckily, behind closed doors or not, football on the ground remains transparent.
It was a well-contested encounter which can be looked at from two different angles. ATK were deserving winners since they made perfect use of the opportunities that came their way.
On the other hand, Chennaiyin FC were tad luckless. They had more of the ball possession, attacked well and created chances. But in football, the team who score more are always the winners in the end.
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Unlike the semifinals, the match was dominated by foreign recruits. Their performance overwhelmed the local players. All four goals came from the boots of the foreigners. Javier Harnandez struck twice for ATK, Edu Garcia found one in between. Nerijus Valskis scored one of his typical opportunistic goals for Chennaiyin.
Valskis, ended up on the losing side but he could yet feel happy for more than one reason. The Lithuanian’s recruitment was initially rejected by the League as his profile apparently “did not match” the league’s standard.
The 32-year-old was approved after much persuasion. Valskis ended up as top scorer with 15 goals, and won the Golden Boot award. Roy Krishna and Bartholomew Ogbeche of Kerala Blasters have also scored 15 goals each.
ATK’s Roy Krishna was definitely a stand-out footballer. Not because of his striking prowess alone. The Fijian’s passing ability, his sense of position and capacity to be at the right place at the right time made him a treat to watch. Pity he had to leave early in the final because of an injury.
At the same time, ATK should get the credit for winning the title even though their best player had to sit out for most of the time. Without Krishna being there to make best use of the passes, Australian David Williams looked bit subdued. But others made it up for them.
Lot was expected from Indian footballers on both sides. Few could rise to the occasion. Of course, except Arindam Bhattacharya. He made some spectacular saves under the ATK bar. He was in his elements both in the semifinal and the final and was the perfect choice for the Hero of the Match award. One hopes he gets a call from Igor Stimac to attend the next national camp.
Prabir Das was expected to dish out a better show. He didn’t. Pritam Kotal missed yet another opportunity to prove why Stimac should keep the wing back position on the right reserved for him. Pranoy Haldar was honest in his approach, but not a game changer. Well, that is something he never was, even when he was Stephen Constantine’s mainstay in the middle of his own half.
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But ATK never lost the plot. That was their key to success. Chennaiyin used the wings well and rained crosses on the rivals. By using three central defenders, ATK kept their rivals at bay in the last half an hour. To bring the midfielders down in the already crowded box was the usual tactics, but it served the purpose well.
All said and done, it was primarily a “foreign” show. The Indians played the second fiddle. They will soon improve by rubbing shoulders with quality foreigners is the claim made at some quarters.
In the absence of anything better, one is ready to believe and wait for the philosophy to succeed.
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