ISL 2018-19: All about Eli Babalj, ATK’s replacement for injured Emiliano Alfaro
With 12 points from nine matches this season, two-time champions ATK are slowly making their progress towards the semi-final of the Indian Super League season 5. Currently, they are sitting at the sixth position in the table with half of their matches still to be played.
In between that, there is a long gap of an international break due to the AFC Asian Cup which is slated in January. So they will get a considerable amount of time to get their campaign move forward.
ATK have witnessed a shaky season last time around, suffering from on and off the field issues. With coaches being changed frequently, it ultimately left a deep impact on the players.
They couldn’t get their form back and finished as low as ninth, their worst performance till date. In order to avoid this kind of situation, the team will need to keep the momentum going.
This season, the team management made no mistake and appointed experienced Steve Coppell at the helm. The team have been performing smoothly albeit one or two odd performances.
Coppell is a no-nonsense coach and always puts the team first ahead of a star player. Despite having some big names in their ranks, ATK have been fighting as a unit, which was missing last season, when the team was embroiled in several clashes of egos.
However, their performances have not been up to the mark this season too. They have acquired the service of players like Manuel Lanzarote, Andre Bikey and John Johnson by spending a considerable amount of money. Still, the results have not been poured in, which was expected.
The main reason behind it is the injury of key players. Defender Arnab Mondal is yet to make an appearance for his team this season. Another defender Andre Bikey was also suffering before he recuperated in the later stages. However, ATK have enough defenders to fill the gap.
The one position which hurts them the most is lack of strikers. Their British coach tried various options like Everton Santos, Lanzarote, Uche, Balwant Singh, Komal Thatal on the attacking front but none of them showed enough consistency. As a result, ATK have scored only seven goals as of now, less than one goal per match.
ATK management brought in Kalu Uche, who scored 13 goals from 18 matches for Delhi Dynamos last season, in their team. Uche injured himself in the pre-season and didn't play the first two matches for ATK.
He returned on the first team before suffering a calf injury again and going back to Barcelona for further surgery. ATK quickly signed Emiliano Alfaro on loan from FC Pune City but before he could make an appearance, the Uruguayan injured himself in the training and is sidelined for the entire season.
With no options left, ATK signed Australian striker Eli Babalj who made his first appearance against FC Goa as a substitute on Wednesday but failed to leave an impression. More than that, questions were raised about him.
Babalj - From Bosnia to Down Under
Who is Babalj? Where did he play? How did he come to ATK? Will he fill the gap? Well, apart from the last question, we have answers for the rest.
Eli Babalj was born on Serajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina on February 21, 1992. But his parents moved to Australia for better livelihood – like most of the families do even now from this Eastern European region – when he was four years old.
Babalj started his youth career with Perth SC before being signed by Perth Glory for their Youth League team. Babalj already started making headlines with his performance and finally Melbourne Heart signed the 17-year-old boy in 2010.
This is where Babalj made a name for himself. He scored nine goals for Melbourne Heart in the 2011/12 season and earned the Young Player of the Year award. Seeing his goal scoring prowess and consistency, people and media started comparing him with legendary Aussie strikers like Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka.
At this moment he was called by the national team for the East Asia Cup and scored twice against Guam, which happened to be his last match to date.
Life turned its back to him a few days later. Like most of the Australian, for better playing chances, Babalj moved to Serbia and signed for Red Star Belgrade. Many Australians have gone to Europe to pursue a lifelong soccer dream, to play for a big club or to develop their career in the country of their parents' birth. A handful has found the move a stepping stone to greater things. But many others have found the shift was a case of one step forward, two steps back.
Red Star, at one point of time, had the fame, but left with no money when Babalj joined the club on the insistence of famous Croatian player turned coach Robert Prosinecki. But after few days of the signing, Prosinecki was sacked by the club and their new coach Aleksandar Jankovic signed two new strikers and Babalj has been left on the outer. Moreover, the club failed to pay the final installment of his $400,000 transfer fee and according to the clause, Babalj returned to Hearts.
In 2013, Babalj joined Dutch club AZ Alkmaar on loan from Hearts. But a serious anterior cruciate ligament injury sidelined him for one year. Babalj, in a desperate move to revive his career, went to a Belgian rehab clinic which helped international superstars Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Divock Origi at one point of their career. He rented a flat and spent the entire cost of rehab from his own pocket.
Upon his return, he was overlooked by AZ and was loaned to PEC Zwolle and Adelaide United later on. Finally, he returned to Adelaide and went on to make eight appearances, including AFC Champions League group stages, scoring one goal in the process. Before coming to ATK, Babalj signed a two-year deal with Czech top division club Mlada Boleslav but quit midway due to some differences.
Babalj mostly plays in two positions, as a right winger or a central forward. As ATK already have a right winger in Komal Thatal, Coppell would want to use him as a central forward, which is need of the moment for the team.
Right now, ATK don’t have any players who could play in the central forward position. Balwant operates in the right-wing and Lanzarote likes to play as a central midfielder. So, if he could adapt to the team quickly, Babalj can be a weapon for the team in the second half of their campaign.
It needs to be seen what ATK do when Alfaro returns from injury. He is taken for the entire season and certainly, ATK management wouldn’t want to see one of the league’s best strikers on the bench. But honestly, their move to sign Alfaro wasn’t a wise one. Alfaro was already struggling with Pune City and it will be an exaggeration to expect goals from him in every match.
For now, it is safe to say that, Babalj is the only option for ATK when it comes to scoring goals.