A Final In The Time Of Coronavirus

The last time an ISL final was played at the Fatorda Stadium, a heaving mass of humanity witnessed the most exciting and fractious title decider in the league’s history. A mostly partisan Goan crowd of nearly 20,000 people saw the home side denied in a heart-breaking manner with ramifications from that result felt long after they had streamed away from the stadium. 

This season’s final was a far cry from that tempestuous night. With the coronavirus spreading its tentacles around the world, football was fast shutting down. On the evening ATK took Chennaiyin FC on, people were still in attendance at games in places like Mexico, Russia and Australia, but most leagues had been suspended and the sensible call was taken to play behind closed doors. It was far from ideal but both teams delivered on the football front for the sparse numbers in attendance and those watching on television. 

Two final appearances each for both teams before this season and four titles between them. ATK and Chennaiyin were ISL royalty and searing disappointment on the big night was a feeling neither was accustomed to. That was going to change for one of them.

The team from Kolkata had the big names while the Machans had all the momentum. Their past successes hinted at the approach that either team would take. While ATK had ground out their wins in low-scoring finals, both against Kerala Blasters, Chennaiyin had gone for the jugular. In two end-to-end games, they pipped their rivals to the post by the odd goal in five. And they certainly started this one on the front foot. Two excellent chances came their way in the initial minutes and if they had gone in, the story would have panned out very differently. 

As it turned out, they paid the price for pushing up the pitch constantly. A long ball over the top bypassed everyone and a chasing Roy Krishna would find Javi Hernández unmarked in the middle of the box. It was not a bad time for the Spaniard to nab his first goal of the season. ATK had their goal and control of proceedings. Another mistake near the halfway line at the beginning of the second half allowed Antonio López Habas’ men to go 2-0 up and the Machans were up against it. 

To their credit, they did not give in and chased goals. In ATK’s goal though, they found Arindam Bhattacharya in inspired form. The thirty-year old had faced some flak for recent performances but he delivered when it mattered the most. Nerijus Valskis pulled one goal back but ATK soaked in all the pressure and had time to hammer a final nail on the coffin in added time. Finals have a habit of producing unlikely goal scorers but no one would have bet on Hernández getting two or midfield enforcer, Pronay Halder, threading in a delicate through ball. 3-1 it ended and on the balance of play, it was the right result. 

With a bit of luck, Chennaiyin could have won but ATK were the better team in the final third all night. They were also the more consistent team through the season and after missing out on a Champions League spot, they will feel that a title win was just reward for the performances they put in. In a quirk of fate, the combined ATK-Mohun Bagan entity that will come into existence on the first of June will hold both of India’s national league titles at the same time. Chennaiyin will reflect on an extraordinary second half of the season. Coyle revived the franchise from the depths after taking over in December and while the pain of defeat will linger for a while, the Machans have a solid platform to build on next season. 

It was a disruptive year for the ISL. The Delhi Dynamos relocated to Odisha. FC Pune City shut down and Hyderabad FC were formed in their place. The City Football Group finally made their move and bought a controlling interest in Mumbai City FC. ATK and Chennaiyin showed however that nothing had changed in the title stakes. With five of six trophies between them, they have thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of the league. Kerala Blasters, are you taking notice?

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