Antonio López Habas is back. The Spaniard led ATK, then Atletico de Kolkata, to the inaugural ISL title before taking them into the playoffs yet again the following season. After failing to agree fresh terms with the Kolkatan side, he moved to FC Pune City in the 2016 season. He couldn’t really produce the goods there before bowing out of Indian football only a couple of months before the 2017-18 season started.
ATK have struggled in recent seasons and it is perhaps not surprising that they have gone back to the man who delivered success for them in the first place. He certainly hit the nail on the head while declaring that his goal is to achieve balance within his squad, both in attack and defence. This was a major issue for the team last season with Steve Coppell handed a slew of riches by the owners without ever figuring out what to do with them. Even when injuries befell the team, ATK kept throwing money at the problem by signing Emiliano Alfaro and Edu Garcia without ever addressing the imbalance within. Far too many players played out of position in an effort to fit all the big signings into the first eleven.
Goal scoring was a big issue for ATK last season and only Chennaiyin FC scored fewer than their eighteen goals. They did reasonably well at the back, with men put behind the ball in typical Coppell-fashion. It resulted in some pretty turgid football and Habas will be tasked with producing displays that draw fans to the stadium. Attendances have dropped since the second season with the overlap with the I-League in recent years contributing to that situation. ATK play with the shadow of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal hanging over them in more ways than one and it will be interesting to see how things pan out this campaign.
Manuel Lanzarote, the player tasked with single-handedly lifting ATK out of the quagmire last season has left; deemed surplus to requirements by Habas. Javi Hernandez, who had earlier played for East Bengal, has joined the club and will be expected to fill into Lanzarote’s shoes. Dario Vidosic is another addition in midfield after having been released by Melbourne City. Sehnaj Singh has joined from Mumbai City FC to add some steel in the middle of the park with Pronay Halder. The Michael brothers, Soosairaj and Regin are exciting additions, and they will compete with Jayesh Rane and Komal Thatal for a place in Habas’ starting eleven.
Former Motherwell captain Carl McHugh and journeyman Agus Garcia have been added to the central defensive ranks along with Anas Edathodika and that rare player from the I-League who has made the national squad in recent times; Salam Ranjan Singh. Dheeraj Singh has been tied to a long-term contract after being bought from Kerala Blasters even though it remains to be seen if he replaces Arindam Bhattacharya in goal.
The pìece de résistance, however, has been in securing the services of Roy Krishna and David Williams from Wellington Phoenix in the A-League. They scored the bulk of the goals for a team that made waves last season, with Krishna being awarded the Johnny Warren medal for being the best player in the league. The Fijian carries genuine star value and could light up the league with his exploits. Jobby Justin and Balwant Singh will be more than capable back-up to these two forwards.
ATK will go into season six with huge expectations, as is always the case with a team with such ISL pedigree. They always look good on paper but Habas will know that after a couple of dud seasons, a place in the playoffs is the least that the fans and owners expect this season.