Antonio Lopez Habas was the toast of Kolkata last season after he led the Indian Super League (ISL) team Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) to title glory in the first edition of the football league. That led to the Spaniard getting a contract extension –becoming only the second manager to be retained by the franchisees from the previous edition (other being Marco Materazzi of Chennaiyin FC).
The first season was a mixed one for the former Spanish defender with his team suffering from drop in form mid-tournament and getting a two match ban for clashing with FC Goa player Robert Pires to winning the title in extra-time.
The major challenge, this season, will be to retain the title and the 58-year-old is not leaving any stone unturned despite the pressure. “We are the defending champions and there will be more pressure on us this time. Our pressure is something similar to that of Roger Federer. Even he’s under pressure to win at Wimbledon,” Habas said.
Believed to be a hard taskmaster, Habas, along with his new assistant Bastab Roy, seems to have been formulating new strategies to create a competitive team for this season.
The team has a new look with the signing of five Indian players including the experienced duo of Clifford Miranda and Syed Nabi.
The former Celta coach has made his intent clear that he is here to win more trophies and not sit on past laurels.
ATK has a strong Indian contingent in Jewel Raja, Sushil Kumar, Nabi, Nadong Bhutia and Miranda all of whom have an experience of playing in the ISL last season.
The consortium made up of Sourav Ganguly, businessmen Harshavardhan Neotia, Sanjiv Goenka, and Utsav Parekh, as well as Atletico Madrid of La Liga in Spain, managed to pick up two players in the ISL auction in Arata Izumi and Rino Anto. While Anto was signed for 90 lakh, Arata returned to Kolkata for 68 lakhs.
The Kolkata franchise also retained Denzil Franco, Mohan Raj, Baljit Singh and Arnab Mondal to bolster the line-up. They also managed to sign Amrinder Singh, Augustin Fernandes, Lalchawnkima and Kunzang Bhutia in the draft.
This season, Habas will be without the services of their top-scorer Ethiopian striker Fikru Teferra (5 goals) and midfielder Luis Garcia, who were the key players in ATK’s title winning camping in 2014.
To replace them, ATK acquired Canadian forward Iain Hume, whose five goals had helped Kerala to the final of the previous season and two-time World Cupper with Portugal Hélder Postiga as their new marquee player.
But Habas has already made that his team will play as a collective unit and not depend primarily on Postiga. “I am happy with how Postiga is shaping up, but for me it is about the team and not individuals. You have to collectively play well as a team to win the trophy again.”
ATK play their season opener against Chennaiyin FC on October 3. Habas sounded confident about his team chances in first match and said he taking one match at a time.
“No pressure on us. We are well prepared, it will be a difficult game, but I am confident,” he said. “We have good attackers, good defence so hopefully we will do well. For me the main objective is to play well in the first match. I don’t want to plan for the entire season, I don’t plan long term. The main objective now is to do well in Chennai.”
ATK will play their home games on natural grass at the Salt Lake Stadium this time around and Habas looked excited about it. “It’s fantastic that the artificial turf is now a thing of past. It’s great to hear that they have changed the pitch to natural grass. People talked last time that we had the advantage but let me tell you, we had to struggle the most because we kept switching from artificial to natural turf in away matches.”
Goalkeeper: Juan Calatayud, Amrinder Singh, Kunzang Bhutia
Defender: Mohan Raj, Tiri, Arnab Mondal, Denzil Franco, Josemi, Syed Rahim Nabi, Rino Anto, Augustin Fernandes, Lalchhawnkima
Midfielder: Javi Lara, Jaime Gavilan, Borja, Valdo, Clifford Miranda, Jewel Raja, Arata Izumi, Sameehg Doutie, Ofentse Nato
Forward: Baljit Sahni , Iain Hume, Hélder Postiga. Nadong Bhutia, Sushil Kumar Singh.