Antonio Habas’ war cry for his ATK side ahead of the second leg of the Indian Super League semi-final against Bengaluru FC was to not give away an away goal. Trailing 0-1 from the first leg, it was absolutely crucial for ATK’s chances of progressing that they kept a clean sheet, especially against a team that had conceded just six goals in nine away games all season.

That plan was thrown out of the window as early as the fifth minute when Ashique Kuruniyan darted past the ATK back line to find the bottom corner of Arindam Bhattacharja’s net and put Bengaluru FC 2-0 up on aggregate.

The challenge then, for the two-time champions, was huge. They had to score three goals in 85 minutes without conceding any more.

It looked unlikely at the time as Bengaluru FC’s game plan of exploiting the spaces behind ATK’s attack-minded wing-backs was working and yielding plenty of openings for the defending champions.

Cuadrat’s smart tweak

Carles Cuadrat, who had so far opted to match ATK’s three-man defence in their previous three meetings this season, decided to go with a 4-3-3 formation with Ashique and Chhetri playing out wide to exploit the spaces.

ATK was struggling to live with Ashique’s pace who wreaking havoc on Michael Soosairaj’s flank as the midfielder-turned-wing-back failed to cope defensively. Ashique managed to get two shots on the ATK goal apart from the goal he scored in the first half-hour.

But the visitors failed to score the second goal that would have killed the tie as they lacked the killer instinct inside the penalty area to convert their chances.

It proved to be costly for them as ATK equalised through a moment of brilliance from top-scorer Roy Krishna. Wing-back, Prabir Das, delivered a quality cross into the box from the right-hand-side for Krishna who sent a glancing finish past Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

It was a well-worked move, but the finish took the cake. There was little wrong in the way Bengaluru tried to defend that move as the sheer quality in ATK’s told.

Despite the equaliser, Bengaluru were the better team both tactically and also in terms of number and quality of chances created at the interval, but the game was level thanks to Krishna’s brilliance.

Big boys turn up for ATK

It was to be the story of the second half as well. Bengaluru FC squandered a bunch of chances, only to see David Williams, ATK’s other big match-winner, make a telling impact.

The Australian’s trickery inside the box got the better of Bengaluru young Suresh Wangjam who stuck his leg out to foul the Australian and concede the penalty just past the hour mark. Taking responsibility, Williams dispatched the spot-kick to draw the Kolkatans level on aggregate and get them within a goal of the semi-finals.

Bengaluru FC managed to regroup and slow the tempo of the game down forcing ATK to throw numbers forward in search of that crucial third goal. It left spaces open for the Bengaluru forwards to exploit.

In the 75th minute, Chhetri fed substitute Kevaughn Frater who was completely unmarked in acres of space inside the ATK box, only for the Bengaluru forward to shoot his effort straight at Arindam who made a fine save. The chance to kill the tie had once again passed the champions due to the lack of quality in front of goal.

ATK punished them four minutes later, when Williams sent a remarkable header past Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in the Bengaluru FC goal to give ATK the lead on aggregate for the first time in the tie. It needed a finish of the highest quality from the Australian to achieve that.

It took ATK 169 minutes to get into a winning position in the tie which Bengaluru FC had led for 138 minutes. Despite the tactical superiority of the Blues for large parts of the two legs, the contest was decided by the difference in quality between the two sides inside the two boxes.

The goals took Krishna and Williams’ combined tally for the season to 21, just three shy of the total managed by the entire Bengaluru team.

After 90 minutes of struggle in Bengaluru, ATK’s match-winners finally showed up in Kolkata and when they did, they made their presence felt.

Missing Miku?

For Bengaluru FC, with Chhetri forced to play on the wings, there was no player to call onto who could make a telling impact inside the box. Both Deshorn Brown and Frater couldn’t deliver the quality that was needed all season long.

A year ago though, at a similar stage of the competition, Bengaluru FC faced the exact fate as ATK. Trailing from the first leg against NorthEast United, the Highlanders put up a display of great tactical discipline in the second leg in Bengaluru and kept the home side at bay. Eventually, after 162 minutes in the tie, Bengaluru managed to break through and get into a winning position for the first time in the tie.

The goalscorer then was a certain Miku who had built a reputation for finding the net when it mattered the most, just like how Krishna and Williams did for ATK on Sunday. Cuadrat was made to rue his absence after the game.

“We lost a number nine and a number ten, Miku and Xisco (Hernandez),” the Bengaluru coach said, referring to the departures from his squad at the start of the season.

“We replaced Xisco with Raphael (Augusto), but unfortunately, he could only play nine games with us. And we replaced Miku with Manu (Manuel Onwu), but unfortunately, he only played six games with us. We had to work with a Plan B for more than half of the season because we couldn’t use our Plan A. But even with Plan B, we reached the semi-finals and were only one goal away from the final. My players are excellent,” he added.

Habas’ faith pays off

While Cuadrat got his tactics right in both legs and almost managed to get Bengaluru through, Habas must be lauded for sticking with his players when things weren’t going for his side for large parts in the tie.

Despite the first leg defeat, he named an unchanged team and stuck with those eleven players till the 84th minute of the second leg. In those 174 minutes, ATK led the tie for just the final five minutes. He kept faith in his players and they repaid him handsomely.

“We believed in our football,” Habas said after the game.

“We played well and changed the story of the match. I told the players to keep believing, keep trusting themselves. It was the most important thing,” he added.

ATK now face a daunting challenge on Saturday as they take on a rampant Chennaiyin side that beat them 3-1 at the Salt Lake stadium a few weeks ago. But Habas will go into the final at the Fatorda unfazed by the past and unperturbed by the future. As against Bengaluru, he will keep faith in his troops, sending them one clear message: Keep believing. With the likes of Krishna and Williams in their squad, the ATK players have little reason not to.