Atletico de Kolkata: Molina's masterclass and the Spanish influence

Atletico de Kolkata, champion in the inaugural year, appeared to have more confident men than Kerala Blasters in the shootout, and a certain Jewel Raja, who triggered celebrations by sending the last kick past the Blasters’ goalkeeper Graham Stack for Kolkata’s 4-3 triumph.

Atletico de Kolkata players celebrate with the trophy after defeating Kerala Blasters via the penalty shootout in the final of the Indian Super League Season 3.   -  ISL/SPORTZPICS

Jose Francisco Molina, the Atletico de Kolkata coach, with Steve Coppell, his counterpart from Kerala Blasters FC. Molina, who took over from Antonio Habas this season, not only continued with his predecessor’s tradition of shutting out teams with a strong defence.   -  ISL/SPORTZPIC

A quick glance at the sparkling names in Atletico de Kolkata would give one the impression that this team would be churning out one flashy victory after another in the Indian Super League. There is Iain Hume, and nobody has scored more goals than the Canadian striker in the ISL history. Then there are names like the Portuguese World Cup player, Helder Postiga, who could be very dangerous inside the box, and star midfielder Borja Fernandez, who once played for Real Madrid.

But surprisingly, Kolkata turned out to be the side that recorded the maximum number of drawn games this season, eight from 14 games in the league phase and just four wins. This was just enough to take the team into the semifinals.

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In that sense, it should not come as a surprise that Atletico de Kolkata’s summit clash against Kerala Blasters trudged to the shootout.

After 120 minutes of drab play, the two weary teams were locked 1-1.

Endgame magic

Atletico de Kolkata is also a side that could whip out endgame magic on the big stage, as it did in the ISL’s inaugural season in 2014, prevailing over Kerala with a last-gasp goal. Things were a bit different in the final in Kochi this season, but the former champion appeared to have more confident men than Kerala in the shootout, and a certain Jewel Raja, who triggered celebrations by sending the last kick past the Blasters’ goalkeeper Graham Stack for Kolkata’s 4-3 triumph.

That made Kolkata — co-owned by former India cricket captain Sourav Ganguly — the most successful team in ISL’s three-year history, having won the title twice and reached the semifinal in the other.

So, what makes Kolkata tick?

There is a strong Atletico Madrid influence in Kolkata since the Spanish giant is a stakeholder in the club and has a major say in the selection of foreign players and coaching staff. And the team had its pre-season in Madrid, playing friendly matches against Spanish clubs.

SLIDESHOW: >Players of the Tournament

That gave a huge advantage to Atletico de Kolkata even before the teams lined up for the season.

Its coach Jose Molina, who took over from the outspoken Antonio Habas this season, not only continued with his predecessor’s tradition of shutting out teams with a strong defence but also guided the team in frequently exploiting the wings with overlapping fullbacks.

It took time for Kolkata to settle down but as the League progressed, the team kept improving with every game.

Fought together

“I think we are a team — that is most important. We attack as a team, defend as a team, fight together. I like the players. But what I love is the team,” explained Molina after Kolkata’s triumph in Kochi.

“We have great players. But sometimes when you have great players, you don’t have a great team. I like eleven players on the pitch who play well, and there are other players who try to get in the team. They all play as a team.”

Sense of belonging

That could be because Kolkata was packed with men who knew each other well. The team had retained seven of its foreigners — Hume, Postiga, Borja Fernandez, Jose Luis Arroyo ‘Tiri’, Javi Lara, Sameehg Doutie and Ofentse Nato — from the previous season which not only kept the backbone intact but also gave the players a sense of belonging.

Hume, the second highest scorer this season with seven goals, scored two in Kolkata’s 3-2 home-leg victory over Mumbai City. Only two Indian players from last season, including Jewel Raja, were retained, and the quality was a lot better.

The nine changes that Molina made in the away semifinal leg against Mumbai City showed the depth in the side. Kolkata had one player for every position and the team’s strength was its midfield.

But it will all be a blur soon.

All that one will probably remember is the image of a very disappointed Kerala star Hengart, after goalkeeper Debjit Majumder saved his attempt in the tie-breaker, and the celebration of Jewel Raja — who wanted to be cricketer earlier — after drilling the last kick past Graham Stack that gave Kolkata its second cup of joy.

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