The Bengal Tigers will be favourites to lift a second crown in three seasons…

Atletico de Kolkata will be eyeing their second Indian Super League title in three seasons when they take on Kerala Blasters in the Final in Kochi on Sunday. Winners in Season 1 and semi-finalists last year, the Bengal Tigers are the only team to make the knockout stages of the competitions in each of its years of existence.

This season the Kolkata outfit achieved the feat of becoming the team with the least number of wins (4) in the group stages to make it to the playoffs. So, what are the secrets behind ATK’s consistent success in the cash-rich league? Let’s look at a few factors.

Atletico de Kolkata are among the few teams in the ISL who have managed to retain their core group of players over the three seasons and then fill up the blanks in the rest of their squad. In their brief history, ATK have never gone for a squad overhaul. They have only roped in players according to their need and ability. Borja Fernandez, Ofentse Nato, Arnab Mondal and Kingshuk Debnath were part of the team in 2014. Iain Hume, Javi Lara and Sameehg Doutie arrived last year, while this season a few new foreign recruits and some promising young Indian talent was added to replenish the roaster.

ATK have also been shrewd with the selection of their marquee players. Though Helder Postiga managed to play only half a game last season due to injury problems, the management decided to keep faith in him. It was a decision based on sound logic. Postiga was familiar with the team and Indian conditions and thus would take much lesser time to adapt in comparison to a new marquee player. The Portuguese would also be motivated to prove his mettle in the league after his disappointing exit last season. The striker has vindicated the team management’s faith in him by becoming an integral part of the side, contributing two goals in nine appearances. Arguably his best performance so far came in ATK’s come from behind win against NorthEast United in Guwahati, when, after coming on as a half-time substitute the frontman first scored the equalizer and then setup Juan Belencoso’s late winner.

ATK have always been a tough team to crack down no matter what the situation is. The late winner against FC Goa in Goa and the late goal to draw level at Delhi Dynamos are just two instances that exemplify the character and resilience within the team. The stability brought about by retaining a group of players over a period of time has greatly helped them foster the same. The players are known to each other and are tactically very sound. Be it physical or mental qualities, they have always stood up tall and delivered the goods.

Molina has built on the foundations of Habas' good work.Molina has built on the foundations of Habas’ good work.

No discussion about ATK is complete without mentioning there prolific ex-coach Antonio Lopez Habas. Habas has been instrumental in building the team as we now know it now. Rough, tough and adaptable to the given situation the team has displayed great versatility. Succeeding him was never going to be easy, but his compatriot Jose Francisco Molina has been shrewd to carry on from the good work done by Habas over the last two years. Molina has not been as vocal as Habas used to be, but he is clever enough to go about his work behind the scenes.

He has never depended on one player but always relied on a team effort to achieve the desired goals. The Spaniard wasn’t perturbed when Postiga was out with injury and Hume was struggling to find goals. ATK are the only team to qualify into the top four with the least number of wins and drawing most of their encounters. This is not because they played a defensive style of football, but because Molina understood the importance of each point when his top players were out of form. At the end of the day a team is judged by their results and not only the brand of football they play.

ATK’s home record has been widely discussed, but look it in a different way and you find that they have always managed to nick results out of most of their games. Be it a win or a draw, they have hardly come out empty handed. It must be remembered that their new home the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium possesses a much smaller pitch compared to the iconic Salt Lake Stadium and ATK have wingers who like to use the width of the pitch. Be it Doutie, Lara or the local lads like Abinas Ruidas and Lalrindika Ralte. It is just one of the tactical adjustments the team has had to make to get results in its new surroundings.

In the Final on Sunday ATK will be the favourites to lift their second ISL crown. They have in their ranks some big names who love to showcase their talents on the big stage. Hume, Postiga, Fernandez, Doutie, Lara can all single-handily topple their opponents with a moment of brilliance. They also have the shrewd tactician Molina who likes to utilize the full depth of his squad as he proved in the Second Leg of their semi-final against Mumbai, making all of nine changes to the starting XI.

They will of course have to contend with not only a very good Blasters side but a vociferous and partisan home support, all of 55,000-strong. Kerala may have won their last six games at home, but their only defeat in Kochi has come against the men from Kolkata, thanks to Lara’s deflected goal earlier in the season. On that night ATK proved that they not only have footballing qualities, but also possess strong personalities and a mentality to swim against the tide and succeed. It was an experience that will stand them in good stead come kick-off in a few days. It is also why they will be confident of becoming champions for a second time, thereby further entrenching their status as the most successful team in the ISL.

Editorial by Khel Now’s Kolkata Coresspondent Rajarshi Chowdhury. He loves, travelling, riding bikes and listening to music.