ATK Mohun Bagan coach Antonio Lopez Habas will have a lot to prove when his side takes the turf at the GMC Stadium pitch to face Kerala Blasters in the ISL 2020-21 opener on Friday.
With Mohun Bagan’s 2019-20 I-League winning coach Kibu Vicuna taking over the reins at Kerala Blasters and their star defender Sandesh Jhingan joining the Kolkata giants, the tension brewing between the two sides is quite evident.
However, Antonio Lopez Habas has one thing going for him in ISL that Kerala Blasters’ new coach does not – experience and success. And the Spaniard will have to do these three things to outplay his compatriot.
Cut the chord in final third
Despite starting the game with a double pivot, who are likely to be Sahal Abdul Samad and Vicente Gomez for Kerala, Vicuna is often seen changing to a solo holding midfielder during his I-League days. This means Kerala will see Gomez as an anchor while Samad pushes further up to support the No. 10 Facundo Pereyra. Vicuna will overload the attacking third with their triangular possession-based play and Habas would want to negate that channel as early as possible. While ATKMB’s three-man defence of Jhingan, Tiri and Sumit Rathi are apt to deal with the pressure, Habas’s fluid tactics can also see Pronay Halder adding another layer of the cushion by dropping down from the midfield. This will allow the creative and fast-paced likes of Prabir Das, Michael Soosairaj, David Williams and Roy Krishna to charge at opponents’ goal.
Soosairaj – the differential
Michael Soosairaj is arguably the most exciting Indian talent that ISL has seen in recent past, and while his limited national team appearances don’t make that evident, his brief cameos in ISL surely does. Playing as an inside forward from the left flank, Soosairaj is under constant pressure to escape his way out of fast-approaching defenders. And his sensational dribbling ability has aided him well to find enough spaces with a passing accuracy of 62.47 per cent. His threat with the curling attempts from outside the box has often helped Williams and Krishan to find good positions inside the D and coach Habas knows well how to utilize the 23-year-old Indian to optimum effect.
Dominate flank play
The Kerala Blasters vs ATK Mohun Bagan fixture is expected to see an intense fight of full-backs throughout the 90 minutes. With both the teams having enough arsenal to dominate and choke the midfield, coaches will instantly look to stretch their play where the wing-backs will come in handy. While Habas has Prabir Das, Rathi and Subhasish Bose to take that onus, Vicuna has the dynamic duo of Nishu Kumar and Jessel Carneiro on the flanks. However, the one department where ATKMB have triumphed over all other ISL teams in the summer transfer window is squad depth. If plan A fails for Habas, the Spaniard could very well introduce Pritam Kotal and Jayesh Rane from the bench in the final quarter of the match whose renewed vigour could eventually kill Kerala’s game.
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