Indian football legend Bhaichung Bhutia has taken sides with ATK Mohun Bagan ahead of the first Kolkata derby in the history of the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL). On November 27, both new entrants ATK Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal lock horns at the Tilak Maidan Stadium in Vasco, and Bhutia, who has featured for both Kolkata clubs in his playing days, believes Antonio Lopez Habas’ side have a slight edge going into the contest.
“ATK Mohun Bagan are much better prepared and Habas is known for not changing things too much. He has been in Indian football for a long time now, so he has a very good idea about both Indian and foreign players. I think East Bengal won’t be too far behind because Robbie Fowler has his own set of good, experienced foreign players. These players would know the demands and the systems under Fowler. It’s about the Indian players settling down well and coping with the system.
“I think yes, right now, on paper, they [ATKMB] are the favourites. And it’s also happening in Goa, because when you play in Kolkata, the pressure and passion is at such a different level that there are no favourites then. But I can see East Bengal doing very well too. For them, if they can beat Mohun Bagan in their first match, it will set the season up really well,” the former India striker told hindustantimes.com.
Bhutia, whose international career spanned more than one and a half decades, reckons that the inclusion of SC East Bengal and ATK Mohun Bagan will go a long way towards facilitating the growth of Indian players on multiple counts.
“…With [ATK] Mohun Bagan and East Bengal coming in to the ISL this year, it’s very exciting but you don’t get to see the two clubs playing in Kolkata. At the same time, it’s just about being patient. Next year, we will get to see these two clubs playing in Kolkata and all the other clubs coming to play against them are going to get a very difficult time from the crowd. Indian players need to experience that. They need to feel that excitement and pressure in away games; it will help them quite a lot,” he said.
This season three teams will also participate in important AFC competitions. FC Goa will participate in the AFC Champions League, meanwhile, ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC will feature in the AFC Cup and the AFC Cup play-offs respectively. Bhutia expects ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC to do well, however, in the case of FC Goa, he has some doubts.
“It’s important that Indian clubs sign players for the long-term and build long-term teams. FC Goa were outstanding last season and they played good quality, attractive football. But once they changed the coach, quite a few players have left, including foreign players and a few important Indian players. When they play ISL this season, it will be almost a new team. If last year’s team had to play in the AFC Champions League, they could have made a big difference. I am not saying this team won’t make a difference but it’s not easy to build a team, it takes time because you need the right players in the right places to really work as a team.
“I think ATKMB will do really well; they have retained most of the ATK players from last season. I think Habas is a really sharp coach. I see them doing really well. And I think Bengaluru FC also have a very good team, they have them together for a long time. I see both these teams doing well,” the 43-year-old said.