The two teams will look to end their domestic campaign with a shot at silverware.
The second semi-final of the Super Cup 2019 will pit two former Hero Indian Super League champions – ATK and Chennaiyin FC – against each other at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Wednesday. Both sides had a somewhat disappointing ISL 2018-19 campaign and will be eager to end the season on a high by reaching the final of the knockout competition and hopefully winning the title.
After struggling in front of goal throughout the season, Steve Coppell’s side has been in fine touch in the Hero Super Cup, scoring seven goals in their two outings so far. Striker Balwant Singh has been in terrific form, scoring four of these seven, including a brilliant hat-trick against Delhi Dynamos FC in the quarter-finals.
Balwant’s performance helped ATK see off a stern challenge from the Lions in the previous match and the 32-year-old is expected to play a key role yet again on Wednesday, spearheading ATK’s attack.
Apart from Balwant, midfielders Manuel Lanzarote and Jayesh Rane, too, have been in fine touch and will be a handful for the Chennaiyin defence in Wednesday’s tie.
ATK head coach Coppell seemed cautiously optimistic and said, “I think every game is so different, you can never predict them. After 10-15 minutes of actual play, you get a measure of how the game is going to play out. Certainly, in my mind, Chennaiyin are obviously a very dangerous side and they have ambition to try and win this competition. As always, I hope it is entertaining and I hope the best team wins.”
Pushed for his take on Chennaiyin’s purple patch post the Indian Super League Coppell said, “Definitely they are stronger. During the Hero ISL season, it was fairly obvious that they did not have that oomph that they had last year. But the qualification for the AFC Cup has created a buzz and lifted the camp. It has helped them to get them through to this stage of the Hero Super Cup. It is an exciting time to play Cup football. Cup football is more edgy and more dangerous.”
ATK will face Wednesday’s challenge without midfielder Pronay Halder, who will miss the tie through suspension due to accumulated bookings. Talking about his absence Coppell said, “He has been terrific in the two games we have played so far.
Given the unique nature of this competition this year, there could have been a different interpretation of the bookings rule. But having said that, if you commit an action which the referee sees to be a questionable foul, then you have to be punished. But it becomes an even hollower competition if star players are not available on either side to play the semi-final or the final.”
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After a thoroughly disappointing Hero ISL 2018-19, which saw them finish bottom of the table, Chennaiyin are enjoying a mini-resurgence of sorts. John Gregory’s men are unbeaten in their last five matches in the AFC Cup and the Super Cup.
A key factor behind their recent upturn in form has been the defence, which, after a tumultuous Hero ISL campaign, seems to have finally found their feet and have let in just one goal in those five outings.
Mailson Alves has been the centre-piece of the team’s backline and also poses a potent goal threat from set-pieces, as demonstrated by his goal against NorthEast in the last match. Dhanpal Ganesh’s return from injury has added some much-needed steel to Chennaiyin’s midfield – an aspect which was a glaring miss during the Hero ISL.
However, the lynchpin of the team in the last few matches has been Anirudh Thapa. The youngster has been thoroughly impressive of late, pulling the strings from the midfield and taking over the role of the side’s creative impetus with grace and authority. The 21-year-old’s technical abilities have shone through in the last few matches and against a strong ATK midfield, Thapa’s influence on the tie can very well turn out to be the deciding factor of the match.
Head coach John Gregory took questions from the media on what to expect from his side. Talking about the new-found positivity in the camp, Gregory said, “The mood in the dressing room is very good. It’s great to be involved on both fronts – in the Hero Super Cup and the AFC Cup. The players are all excited at the prospect of progressing to a final. Generally, there is a good mood. We were obviously disappointed with the Hero ISL season. However, the attitude has been great going into both cup competitions.”
Continuing on the topic he added, “It isn’t easy on the players, a long season like this. But all of them are focused on the job at hand and aiming to make it into the final. We have momentum at the moment and the spirit within the squad is high. It doesn’t matter how you win football matches, but it brings confidence along with it.”
The Englishman also showered praise on the ATK team and reiterated how difficult it is to break down a Coppell-coached outfit. “I’ve said this before; Coppell’s teams are very difficult to break down. They played well against Delhi Dynamos, with our former player Balwant Singh scoring a hat-trick. (Manuel) Lanzarote is always a danger as well. We will try to keep him quiet,” he said.