Indian Super League's seventh season got underway at the GMC Stadium in Bambolim on Friday with ATK Mohun Bagan FC (ATK MB) beating Kerala Blasters FC (KBFC) in the inaugural match by a 1-0 margin.
The tournament is being held amid unprecedented circumstances, inside a bio-secure bubble, after an eternity-long off-season and almost non-existent pre-season, and the effects of that were visible throughout the match with passes often not meeting the intended target and players scuffing sitters that on any other day would be put in the back of the net nine out of 10 times.
Nevertheless, ISL 2020-21 is off and running with ATK MB capturing valuable three points to set the pace early. The first match of the season gave a glimpse of how the action would most probably unfold in the first week. With multiple changes across franchises and lack of time for preparations, teams are yet to find their best possible combinations, peak fitness, and rhythm. In light of that, ATK MB would be delighted to win their first match when they are not in their best shape.
The season opener also taught us a lot about how these two franchises " ATK MB and Kerala Blasters " plan to progress in the upcoming matches.
Antonio Habas to stick with his philosophy
ATK MB are a new side officially but the skeleton of the unit is almost the same as that of last year's champions ATK. Sheikh Sahil is the only player from last year's I-League title-winning Mohun Bagan side in Habas' 27-member squad and similarly, there's very little that has changed with how the Spanish gaffer aims to set up his team on the pitch.
The official stats state that ATK MB only had 40 percent of the ball possession on the night but at times it felt like they had less than that. Habas made his team to sit back and absorb the pressure, opting to look for scoring opportunities on counterattacks. And the plan paid its dividends as ATK MB created more chances on the night with Krishna scoring after they launched a counterattack.
- ATK Mohun Bagan FC (@atkmohunbaganfc) November 20, 2020
The back three of skipper Pritam Kotal, Tiri, and Sandesh Jhingan had a decent game. The full-back pairing of Prabir Das and Michael Soosairaj are expected to provide defensive support to center-backs and initiate attacks with their relentless running on the flanks.
They had a quiet night against Kerala with Soosairaj getting injured early and that could be a cause of concern for Habas as his replacement Subhasish Bose failed to impress in whatever time he got. The next game for ATK MB is the all-important derby against SC East Bengal, on 27 November.
ATK MB to rely heavily on Krishna, again
ATK MB would have won at least by a margin of 3-0 on the night if Krishna had taken all his chances, but the rustiness is understandable. After all, the forward had to quarantine for 30 days across three countries to join the ATK MB squad in time for the ISL. Last year, Krishna scored 15 goals in 21 games to finish as the joint top-scorer in the competition.
Last night, while his finishing was way off the mark against Kerala, he constantly threatened with his running behind the line. His anticipation of the second ball is second to none and the same helped him clinch the winner. The Friday game was another exhibition of how important Krishna is going to be to ATK MB's campaign. He is the fulcrum for the team that plays on the counterattack and there's hardly anyone in the team who can replace him in that role.
Welcome back, Jhingan!
Jhingan is an asset for India. The Arjuna Award winner towers above the rest of India defenders both in quality and leadership and it was a sight for the sore eyes of Indian football fans to see The Beard play out the whole match after missing all of the last season. Tiri was the chief marshal for ATK MB at the back but the Spanish defender was ably assisted by Jhingan, who snuffed out danger consistently with his no-nonsense defending. The 27-year-old should only get better as he adds more minutes under his belt.
>Kibu Vicuna forging an identity for Kerala
The last few seasons have been like a nightmare for Kerala, who were runners up twice in the first three editions of ISL. The issue, however, wasn't just the ninth or seventh finish in the table but also the lack of identity for a side which boasts one of the most vociferous fan bases in India. The Spanish coach Vicuna, fresh from winning the I-League with Mohun Bagan, was appointed to work on both the fronts " results and playing style.
The campaign opener highlighted that the task on hand is going to be no cakewalk. Kerala would have to improve by leaps and bounds to stitch together a run of wins but what was admirable was the South Indian side's effort to build from the back and play possession-based football, something that we expected them to do under Vicuna. Kerala had a 75 percent passing accuracy in the match with 367 successful passes as compared to ATK MB's 132. Bakary Kone and Costa Nhamoinesu had a reasonable game as the new center-back pairing and helped their side lay the foundation from the back.
0 - @KeralaBlasters had no shots on target vs @atkmohunbaganfc tonight. In the last @IndSuperLeague campaign, only three times a team had finished a game without a single shot on target, one being also @KeralaBlasters vs @bengalurufc in November 2019. Blank pic.twitter.com/g4VJ20rRP8
- OptaJeev (@OptaJeev) November 20, 2020
However, the major concern for Vicuna was his side's performance in the final third. They were very slow with their passing and rarely gave striker Gary Hooper a chance to have a shy at the goal. The English striker impressed with his hold-up play but would need more support from his midfielders to get onto the scoring sheet.