The first part of the ATK-Bengaluru FC semi-final was no footballing treat. It was a fiercely-fought yet scrappy affair that was decided in Bengaluru’s favour by the odd goal that came thanks to a goalkeeping mistake.
But knockout football is rarely about art; it’s all about result as FC Goa found out the hard way on Saturday evening. Despite competing well in the first leg and dominating large parts of the second leg, Goa were undone by two spells of Chennaiyin ascendancy in which they scored six times.
Bengaluru FC and ATK would thus be mindful of letting their guard down at any point in the second leg of the semi-final at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata on Sunday, especially with the tie evenly poised.
Defence vs attack
A 1-0 scoreline in Bengaluru’s favour would go a long way in setting the tone for the second leg. The goal-shy Blues would rely on their resolute defence to once again see off ATK’s threat and carry them into the final.
ATK, however, would hope their attacking trio of Roy Krishna, David Williams and Edu Garcia would be able to find a way past the Bengaluru rearguard, not once but twice to send them through to their third ISL final.
Those three players have contributed 24 goals and nine assists among them and would have to shoulder the responsibility of finding inroads in the visiting defence line, something they failed to do in the first leg in Bengaluru.
ATK had just one shot on target and that too was a shot from outside the area. However, at home, the Kolkata players would be hoping to put up a much-improved performance.
“We know that they are one of the more powerful teams in attack, because they have two very talented strikers (Roy Krishna and David Williams), who can do a lot of good work,” Bengaluru midfielder Dimas Delgado said before the game.
“We have been working on this in the last two weeks. We have to sacrifice a little bit in attack. One of us has to be in front of the two centre-backs to try and negate the connection between Edu (Garcia) and one of the two strikers. You have to always help your defence,” he added, hinting at Bengaluru’s likely approach in the second leg.
Bengaluru FC have the league’s meanest defence. Even away from home, they haven’t given away too much, conceding just seven times in nine matches and keeping three clean sheets. Although they have only two victories on the road, they’ve drawn four and lost only thrice.
At the Salt Lake stadium, ATK have won six out of the nine games, including a 1-0 success over Bengaluru FC, and lost twice and drew once. In the process, they have scored 18 goals and kept four clean sheets.
So, it is going to be a straight battle between ATK’s strikeforce and Bengaluru FC’s defence. The winner of this duel will most likely seal their passage through to the final.
The away-goal dynamic
The one factor that gives Bengaluru FC slight edge in the contest is their success in preventing ATK from scoring an away goal in Bengaluru.
The possibility of an away goal for Carles Cuadrat’s men would thus always keep them in the game even if their solid defence in breached early on in Kolkata.
If Bengaluru score, their chances of progressing will sky-rocket as ATK would then need to score three goals at least to advance. This season, Bengaluru FC have conceded three goals just once, in the 2-3 defeat to Mumbai City FC at home.
However, the Blues’ struggles upfront mean getting on the scoresheet against ATK’s defence who have been relatively solid this season would be easier said than done.
Sunil Chhetri and Co have scored only six goals on the road. They’ve failed to score in four of their nine away matches this season, one of which came at the Salt Lake stadium against ATK.
ATK have conceded eight goals in nine home games this season, averaging almost one goal conceded per game. The statistic would worry ATK fans, but it must be taken with a pinch of a salt five of those goals came in just two matches. Antonio Habas’ men are the second-best defensive side after Bengaluru and have kept four clean sheets at home.
“For Sunday, we are 1-0 down. It is a good score for Bengaluru. We have to try to get more goals than the opponent. It is simple. I think it is very important to score goals, but even more important to not concede,” coach Habas said ahead of the match stressing the need for ATK to keep a clean sheet.
Past record point to a game with fine margins, and the team with better composure on such a tight night would most likely come out on top.
Habas rarely changes his approach and is likely to keep faith in it despite how effectively Bengaluru blunted ATK in the first leg. A back three with attack-minded wing-backs, technically sound midfield behind the attacking triumvirate.
The Spaniard seemed fairly pleased with his troops after the first leg.
Bengaluru FC have matched their three-man defence every time they’ve come up against ATK and are unlikely to go with a back-four that would give ATK’s wing-backs the full breadth of the pitch to exploit.
It will be interesting to see how Cuadrat copes with the absence of the suspended Nishu Kumar and possibly Albert Serran who is an injury doubt for the match.
Ashique Kuruniyan is likely to replace Nishu in the left-wing back role while Gursimrat Singh Gill is the back-up if Serran fails to be fit for the game.
Kevaughn Frater who looked bright after coming on as a substitute in the first leg may get the nod over Deshorn Brown, allowing Chhetri to lead the line.
The Blues have played in a host of finals and semi-finals and have a relatively unchanged squad in the last few years. Thus, the team have the knack of riding through the turbulent times in tight knockout games and coming out on top.
“We expect a very tough game. It’s the most important game for ATK in the last three seasons. They weren’t in the top four in the last two seasons. For us, it’s the third final in a row,” coach Cuadrat said in the pre-match press conference.
“It has been that kind of season where circumstances have changed. We had to deal with some situations that were not happening in that way in the past, but it is part of football. The players have responded well,” he added.
Chhetri is well-known for his big-game exploits and few would put it past the Bengaluru captain to be the match-winner on Sunday.
In this finely-poised semi-final, the scenario hands a slender advantage to Bengaluru FC. It is now down to ATK to really impose themselves on the tie and make their technical superiority count. They may have the flair for the task, but it may come down to whether they have the bottle for it. A test of character, if ever there was one.
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