Owen Coyle has been in a similar situation in the past. The Scotsman took the lowly Burnley to clinch the Championships playoffs to earn promotion to the Premier League. Burnley, according to Coyle, was tipped to be in the bottom three of the Championship and he drew parallels to his current club Chennaiyin FC, which was placed ninth in the table after six matches at the start of December. Four months on, his team is in the fight for the Indian Super League (ISL) title in the summit clash against ATK.
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Antonio Habas has been in the exact scenario before though. He won the inaugural ISL title with ATK in 2014 and now has the chance to add another crown here at the Fatorda Stadium on Saturday. But this final is doubly important, with its partner club Mohun Bagan, which will merge with the red-and-white outfit to become a new ISL team next season, winning the I-League championship earlier this week in emphatic fashion.
The final being played behind closed doors, due to the coronavirus threat, adds to the elements to counter for both the clubs. Coyle, Habas, and the skippers Lucian Goian and Roy Krishna acknowledged that the unique setting will be a first in their careers and something beyond their control.
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Even without the soundtrack of the supporters both the teams have enough in their arsenal to make the right noises.
During Chennaiyin’s unbeaten nine-match run in the second half of the season, Coyle settled on a starting XI in which his front four of Nerijus Valskis, Rafael Crivellaro, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Andre Schembri could excel in. The quartet has scored 22 goals since then, including the two in the second-leg defeat against FC Goa in the semifinals.
After the 6-5 aggregate win on Saturday, Chennaiyin has set up base in the state and has been putting in the paces over the week. On Friday morning, Coyle made his way early into the Bambolim Athletic Stadium to oversee the preparations for the final practice session of the season. As the players made their way in, he stood stony-faced in the centre circle with his arms crossed, as the players went about their stretches. Just three months back when he took over, the picture would most likely have been a more hands-on-approach.
It’s the idea of being a collective unit which has helped Coyle tick at Chennaiyin and he wants to have one final flourish. Coyle said, “It's not about stopping one individual, it is a collective effort. We have talented individuals, but our strength is as a group. And that's what when we are able to achieve."
On the other end, there have been a few uncertainties surrounding ATK. For various reasons, Habas has put out the same starting XI for successive matches only twice this season, with the second instance coming – after 13 matches -- in the playoff semifinal win over defending champion Bengaluru FC.
In the last two matches, the Spaniard has settled on the back three of Pritam Kotal, John Johnson and Sumit Rathi. There are still question marks over goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharja, who has been error-prone despite keeping nine clean-sheets. But crucially for Habas, he was able to reinstate David Williams back into the team in the last three games. Williams has seven goals and four assists this season despite missing close to six games this season through injury. His dovetailing with Krishna, and how Chennaiyin's midfield and defence manage to keep the forward quiet will be a pivotal contest.
Williams struck the winner against Chennaiyin earlier in the season and then provided the requisite threat in his comeback 45 minutes in the 3-1 defeat to the same side. Another standout player in the ranks has been Prabir Das as the right wing-back, adding creativity from the flanks in the 3-5-2 formation.
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The normally stern Habas looked relaxed ahead of the final. “We have to enjoy the final but we have to respect the opponent. There is only one final. Maybe some player doesn't have the opportunity to play another final in his career. But we need one heart and the whole mind for the final,” he said.
ATK's scheduled training on Friday stood cancelled as most of the team reached late on the eve of the game. It remains to be seen if it has a bearing on the players' performance in the final.
Both teams have played each other twice in the league stages with the home team suffering defeats. Chennaiyin’s 3-1 defeat of ATK last month proved to be the blow which knocked it out of the reckoning in finishing top of the table – a position which Habas covets more than the ISL title.
Now, an opportunity presents for ATK to shoot down the high fliers from Chennai.