Nothing about Tuesday night, though, was normal.
The score read ATK Mohun Bagan 2 – 1 NorthEast United, but really, it could have been anything. The woodwork was hit at both ends, a penalty was missed, a shot was cleared off the goalline, others were smashed into the sea from six yards out. In total, there were 44 shots on goal in the match, 26 of them from Bagan. They both had six on target each. The ball spent most of the match inside the two penalty boxes.
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In the first half, though, NorthEast barely got a boot on the ball. Habas’ team started with their collective foot on the proverbial pedal, and kept it there. They utterly dominated the ball, and launched wave after wave of attack at the stunned NorthEast defence.
Set up in Habas’ favourite 3-5-2, ATKMB took Khalid Jamil’s 4-3-3 apart. Subhasish Bose and Manvir dominated the wings, Carl McHugh, Lenny Rodrigues and Javi Hernandez controlled central midfield with ease, Krishna and Williams terrorised the centre-backs.
Inside the first three minutes, Williams had blazed a shot over and Hernandez had smacked the post. Bagan really could have been out of sight at any point in that first half. A combination of unusually dull finishing, bad luck, and last-ditch bodies-on-the-line-defending, though, meant they had to wait 38 minutes for the first goal. When it came, it was trademark ATK (MB).
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Lenny dispossessed a dawdling Federico Gallego in the Bagan half — Gallego was possibly disconcerted during the rare moment of having the ball at his feet that high up the field — and within 8.4 seconds, the ball was in the back of the net.
On tackling, Lenny immediately passed it short to McHugh, who passed it forward to Krishna. With that near-telepathic understanding they have developed over the years, Krishna found Williams with a lovely first-time ball down the inside-left channel. Williams raced forward, easily held off his marker and lifted a superb finish over the flailing Subashish Roy Chowdhury.
It was Bagan’s 16th shot of the half, easily the highest they have registered in a single 45 this season. By the time they trudged off at halftime, NorthEast had registered five — most of them potshots from distance.
The 15-minute break, though, did a world of good for NorthEast. Now that they had gotten used to the un-ATKMB-like ATKMB flow, they were no longer walking around with their mouths agape.
Switching to his trusted 4-4-2, Jamil asked his team to set up camp a good 20 metres further forward. He had had enough of playing in his own half. Apuia, invisible in the first half, came into his own. Chance after chance was created as NorthEast attacked an unusually brittle-looking Bagan defence. Pritam Kotal was making mistakes, the returning Sandesh Jhingan and Tiri were not enjoying being run at. Bagan dropped deeper, and deeper. Chances came, chances went.
Bagan, though, had gotten used to the changing tempo, and you could almost sense a switch flick on. And they embraced it.
In the 68th minute, they doubled the lead with another trademark goal. Ball stolen deep in their own half, Krishna released, nay, unleashed Manvir into the NorthEast half. Shorts hitched up, socks just above the ankle in traditional ‘I-can-play-ball’ style, Manvir ran. Gurjinder Kumar backed away and backed away and fell over, and was soon joined on the floor by Mashoor Shereef as Manvir cut in and Arjen-Robben-ed a goal into the far top corner.
That, really, should have been that. Normally, nobody comes back from 2-0 down to Antonio Habas.
But this was no normal match.
NorthEast continued to pour forward, and in the 74th minute caught a lucky break – Arindam Bhattacharya flapped at a ball that he had no business flapping it, and off the rebound, VP Suhair stooped to head home.
2-1, game on. Every other NorthEast attack seemed to lead to a shot on goal at this point, but it was one that didn’t that presented them their best chance for an equaliser. A hopeful ball was punted into the box, where Idrissa Sylla, alone and not much of a threat to Arindam’s goal, was clumsily bundled over by Bose. Penalty, NorthEast.
In the spirit of this year’s semifinals, Luis Machado stepped up and sent it into the uninhabited row Z behind the goal.
From there, the last 10-odd minutes were a blur of white attack and green-and-maroon defence. In the end, Bagan’s defence (and luck) held — an awfully misdirected Ashutosh Mehta shot from five yards NorthEast’s best opportunity — and they stayed the course for the win.
Khalid Jamil’s sensational 10-game journey as interim manager has now finished with his first defeat of the campaign. Habas’ will end in yet another ISL final — it’s his third now, a record in the young history of the ISL.
He got there by going against his natural instincts, against the ‘philosophy’ that has gotten him so far… he got there by finally sending his ATK Mohun Bagan team out to play ball.
And boy, did they.