The two ISL semifinals over the weekend were played in contrasting styles.
The one at Fatorda in Goa was a high scoring encounter — Chennaiyin FC finally prevailed on 6-5 aggregate, despite losing the second leg 2-4 to FC Goa. More significantly, Goa put their league winners’ shield, courtesy of finishing on top of the table after the league stage, safely in their bag even before taking the pitch.
From a footballing point of view, it was a lop-sided encounter, full of horrendous defensive lapses from both sides. Chennaiyin are not going to Asian Champions League (ACL), but FC Goa are. They should seriously repair their defence before challenging the best in Asia.
The second semifinal on March 8, at ATK’s home turf in Kolkata, saw a huge crowd thanks to Mohun Bagan fans. The two clubs are merging at the end of the season. Bagan supporters felt it was their duty to back their newly-acquired friends. Plans chalked out by the management of the two clubs have certainly fallen in place. And nicely too.
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On the turf, the match was well-contested. ATK won the day 3-1 and 3-2 on aggregate against Sunil Chhetri’s Bengaluru FC. They were deserving winners for more than one reason.
On the face of it, the brilliance of Fijian striker Roy Krishna and his Australian teammate David Williams clinched it for ATK. Trailing by a goal, Krishna’s amazing strike followed by two from Williams turned the tide in ATK’s favour. But without wing back Prabir Das and goalkeeper Arindram Bhattacharya, ATK wouldn’t have pulled it off. Both are local players, and learnt their trade in Kolkata. Their performance is proof enough that given enough match time, Indians too can prove their mettle at this level.
An eye catching performance from Arindam was long overdue. One was reminded of his tremendous show under the bar in Dhaka won India the SAFF championship 10 years back.
Arindram was not even 20 then. In an interview after the SAFF, he claimed it was only the beginning. He didn’t really fulfill the promise, whatever the reasons be. But on Sunday, he was spectacular. Especially, in the last 10 minutes.
Das, on the other hand, impressed everyone with his hard work on the pitch. His defensive qualities are indeed good, but his ability to keep on creating the right passes changed the show. His cross to Williams for the third goal was enough to win him the Player of the Match award.
Talking of Indian footballers, one felt sad for Ashique Kuruniyan to end up on the losing side. Perhaps he didn’t do justice to his potential this season. On Sunday, however, he did well at the open space. His goal for Bengaluru was a clever piece of work, the defensive mistake notwithstanding. Again he could have done better.
At the breather, national coach Igor Stimac sounded extra cheerful when he spoke about Ashique Kuruniyan. One could easily understand the reason behind his pleasing words. Only a couple of days back, he rued about the lack of strikers in India.
Bengaluru were, in fact, undone by the brilliance of strikers Krishna and Williams. There was a bit of controversy, no doubt. Carles Cuadrat bitterly contested the spotkick.
He was, perhaps, not far from the truth. But in the end, he will have very little to complain about the class of the first and the third goal by ATK. That one decisive flick on the run by Krishna made the day for spectators.
Over to Fatorda, one is sorry to say it was more about hype than quality football. No doubt, there were lots of the so called “ups and downs”. Trailing 1-4 in the first leg, Goa led by two goals but allowed Chennaiyin to make a comeback and draw level. Goa struck two more only to find the aggregate still showing them the door.
The defensive errors were too many and painful to watch. One couldn’t believe the manner in which Lucian Goian scored a self-goal for Chennaiyin. It was definitely a one-off mistake on his part, but one expects not to see such mistakes being committed at this level.
It wasn’t the end. Goa, too, “matched” their rivals. Nerijus Valskis was left completely unmarked when he headed in one for Chennaiyin. Mourtada Fall’s second goal for Goa could have easily been prevented.
One expects to watch a better brand of football in a penultimate round match of the country's top league. That, too, with 10 highly paid foreign recruits on the field.
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On Saturday, ATK and Chennaiyin FC will meet in the final at Fatorda. Having won the title twice each previously, they are ISL’s most successful sides. Last month, Chennaiyin put paid to ATK’s hopes (3-1) of topping the league table and book an ACL berth.
But then, that is history. If the semifinals are any indication, then Antonio Habas’s side hold an edge. They have a tighter defence and a sharper supply line. Owen Coyle, no doubt, has done wonders with the team. He now has to work overtime with his defence.
Is it going to be a Roy Krishna, David Williams, Nerijus Valskis, Rafael Crivellaro show? That is what it is expected to be. One hopes it doesn’t. Let it be a fierce battleground for Prabir Das, Pritam Kotal, Anirudh Thapa or Lallianzuala Chhangte. Let it be a true Indian Super League final.
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