The final of the 2019-’20 Indian Super League is set to be played behind closed doors but when ATK and Chennaiyin FC cross swords for the title after a rollercoaster season, the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Besides bragging rights and an AFC Cup spot, both teams have a chance to script another piece of history with an unprecedented third title.
Both sides overcame tough circumstances against two mighty opponents in the playoffs to secure their place in the finals for the third time respectively.
Heading to the second leg playoff tie at Fatorda with a 4-1 advantage in their favour, Chennaiyin FC found themselves trailing by 0-2 inside 20 minutes against FC Goa who launched a thrilling fightback but two crucial away goals helped them go through 6-5 on aggregate.
Similarly, ATK slumped to a narrow 1-0 defeat away and were staring at defeat after conceding inside five minutes in the second leg. The Kolkata side rallied back and scored three goals in the space of 50 minutes with a gritty comeback.
Surprisingly, this is the first occasion where both teams will face each other in the final. Pride will also be on the line as both Chennaiyin FC and ATK have never lost in the final before.
Both clubs underwent a major overhaul in the summer after enduring disappointment during the previous season. ATK brought back Antonio Habas, who guided them to the title in 2014. Chennaiyin FC, on the other hand, chose to stick with John Gregory even after a tumultuous season.
ATK displayed their title credentials early on and established themselves as one of the most fearsome sides in the league. They narrowly missed out on the top spot and the AFC Champions League after few blips here and there, finishing second behind FC Goa on the table with 34 points.
Few teams could match ATK’s consistency as the Kolkata side scored the most goals after FC Goa and conceded the second least in the league phase.
Their opponents, Chennaiyin FC struggled for that sort of consistency early on, porous at the back and ineffective in attack. Placed second from bottom after six games, it was only after the appointment of Owen Coyle in December that the Marina Machans managed to turn around their fortunes. The club sneaked into the playoffs after a scintillating run of results where they embarked on a nine-match unbeaten streak – best in the league this season.
Since Coyle’s appointment, they notched a staggering tally of 34 goals from 14 games and winning eight of them.
There’s nothing much to separate the two teams going by their head-to-head record this season and the rivalry that they share. History favours the Kolkata outfit but both have beaten each other in their meetings during the current edition.
Chennaiyin FC, managed by Gregory back then, faced a narrow 0-1 defeat to ATK during the early stages before returning the favour by humbling their opponents 3-1 away during the business end of the season. That win deprived Habas’ men of an AFC Champions League slot as FC Goa leapfrogged them at the summit and secured the top place finish in the end.
ATK vs Chennaiyin head-to-head record
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Both teams have a full-strength squad at their disposal. Chennaiyin FC forward Andre Schembri will be playing the final match of his professional career after announcing his retirement earlier.
ATK and Chennaiyin FC boast a wide array of options in offense and given their propensity to play an attack-minded, gung-ho brand of football, the final could be a high goal-scoring affair.
Both defences will have to be on their toes to nullify the attacking threat and this is where ATK, given their better defensive record, holds the edge. They have kept nine clean sheets, more than double of their counterparts (4).
ATK adopt a more direct approach and have recorded the least average passes per game this season while Chennaiyin FC play an eye-catching brand of football and dissect teams with quick passes.
Both teams love to use the width of the pitch and the final could be decided by who manages to run the show on the channels.
ATK’s wing-backs Prabir Das and Michael Soosairaj like to push up high and have played a key role in Habas’ counter-attacking setup. Chennaiyin FC wingers Lallianzuala Chhangte and Andre Schembri will need to exploit these spaces left vacant by the wing-backs and confine the duo in their own half.
ATK will also need to be wary when they push bodies forward and ensure they do not leave gaps open in the middle for Chennaiyin FC frontman Nerijus Valskis and No 10 Rafael Crivellaro.
Defending will also be a concern for Coyle’s side who have been shaky at the back despite their exploits in the final third.
Their defence failed to deal with crosses in the second leg playoff tie against FC Goa and were rattled by the barrage of attacks launched. Centre-backs Eli Sabia and Lucian Goian need to marshall their box with great responsibility while dealing with ATK’s crosses and ensure they keep their nerves.
“If ATK are going to line-up they way they have with the three at the back and the wing-backs playing high up, you are going to face some attacking threats,” Coyle said at the pre-match press conference.
“I think we are two attack-minded teams and I think the winner on Saturday will be the team who takes care of the ball. If we take care of the ball, we will be the team to impose ourselves on ATK. It’s a wonderful game that we are looking forward to,” he added.
The Marina Machans also have a tendency to ship late goals, having conceded 10 in the last 15 minutes, which is the joint-highest tally in the league.
The opening goal could also hold the key in building momentum and deciding the outcome of the final. ATK have lost just one match of the 13 games in which they have netted first while their opponents are yet to lose a game when they have done the same.