Fancied Atletico de Kolkata (ATK), inaugural edition champions of the Indian Super League (ISL), will bank on their firepower and a solid midfield as they look for their second title in three years, while much interest is centred on how the new coach shapes up to fill the shoes of ace tactician Antonio Lopez Habas.
Portuguese marquee player Helder Postiga, who started off with a bang last season, netting a brace in the first game before missing the rest of the tournament following a hamstring injury, will dovetail with Canadian hitman Iain Hume and South African winger Sameehg Doutie -- and that could send the chill down the spines of rival defenders during the two-and-a-half-month-long high-profile league beginning on October 1.
Hume has made the ISL his own, scoring at will last season for ATK (11 goals) besides hitting the target five times in the opening edition for Kerala Blasters. Doutie's buccaneering runs down the flanks will add more teeth to the attack line only rivaled on paper by Mumbai City FC -- boasting the likes of Uruguayan Diego Forlan, Haitian Sony Norde, India captain Sunil Chhetri and new signing Argentine Gaston Sangoy in their ranks.
Last year, the Sourav Ganguly co-owned team's sojourn was pockmarked by injuries to key players for long stretches with the likes of Postiga, Javi Lara and Arata Izumi missing crucial fixtures. Their campaign came to an end in the semifinal with an aggregate 2-4 loss to Chennaiyin AFC.
"We were the best team last season except that one game. We have to do what we did not last season, that is get past the semifinals. We have a great team and I am sure we can achieve our goal of bringing the trophy home again," said Hume who, despite his stellar show in both editions of the tourney, is yet to lay his hands on the silverware.
Doutie, Hume and Jaime Gavilan had stepped up a year back to provide their injury-hit side a lot of respite. Gavilan's creative vision and Hume's industry at the heart of Atletico's offence combined with Doutie's runs propelled the side to the pre-summit round with three back-to-back victories at the death of the league stage after languishing at the foot of pyramid midway into the tourney.
This time, the side is under a new management with Spanish World Cupper Jose Francisco Molina taking over the reins from Habas, who has jumped ship to FC Pune City. The former Atletico Madrid player joins ATK on the back of a remarkable domestic treble with Hong Kong side Kitchee Sports Club. Under Molina, the club won the Premier League, League Cup and the FA Cup and also reached the AFC Cup quarterfinals. However, the ATK fans had begun to revere Habas for his strategies and bold decisions and Molina will be under the scanner, at least in the initial games.
ATK is known for its solid midfield and the coach will surely want to stretch the trend. With Ofense Nato pulling the strings and Borja Fernandez and Javi Lara for company, the fluid passing is expected to be the team's mainstay once again.
Last season, skipper Borja and Jaime Gavilan had 1,092 completed passes between them, which was a high point in their campaign.
Another factor that can play a part is the side's new home venue, Rabindra Sarovar Stadium, following the unavailability of the colossal Salt Lake Stadium which is under renovation for next year's FIFA U-17 World Cup.
It remains to be seen how they adapt to the new coach as well as the new venue. On paper, the side looks good with fresh Indian faces, barring centre-back Arnab Mondal and attacking midfielder Jewel Raja. The reason for this new-look domestic roster could be the poor show of the Indian bunch the last term. The foreign core has, however, been retained.
Goalkeepers: Debjit Majumdar, Shilton Paul, Dani Mallo (Spain)
Defenders: Pritam Kotal, Prabir Das, Robert Lalthlamuana, Kingshuk Debnath, Arnab Mondal, Tiri (Spain), Pablo Gallardo (Spain), Keegan Pereira
Midfielders: Lalrindika Ralte, Bikash Jairu, Bikramjit Singh, Jewel Raja, Bidyananda Singh, Borja Fernandez (Spain), Otentse Nato (Botswana), Sameehg Doutie (South Africa), Stephen Pearson (Scotland), Javi Lara (Spain), Abhinash Ruidas
Forwards: Iain Hume (Canada), Helder Postiga (Portugal), Juan Belencoso (Spain).
(Debayan Mukherjee can be contacted at [email protected])