ISL 2020-21 Semi-Final: ATK Mohun Bagan face Khalid Jamil’s resurgent NorthEast United brigade

NorthEast United FC players practise ahead of their match against Chennaiyin FC held at the GMC Bambolim Stadium, Goa | Vipin Pawar / Sportzpics for ISL

ISL 2020-21 Semi-Final: The defending Indian Super League champions ATK Mohun Bagan did not have to toil hard to get into the Top-4 but in the second seminal, they face Khalid Jamil’s resurgent NorthEast United FC on Saturday at the GMC Bambolim Stadium in Goa.

While the centralised venue for the semifinal due to the COVID-19 pandemic may not be ideal for either party who enjoy a strong home crowd, the target will be to secure a first-leg advantage. ATKMB, who missed the chance to seal AFC Champions League berth narrowly to Mumbai City FC on head-to-head records, will look to retain the title. But for Jamil, he has a point to prove after becoming the first Indian coach to lead an ISL team to the semifinals.

ATKMB’s selection problem

ATKMB did not have to break much sweat en route semifinals but coach Antonio Lopez Habas will have a selection headache on Saturday. With centre-back, Sandesh Jhingan ruled out of the clash with an injury, he will have to either change tactics or deploy youngster Sumit Rathi. But risking playing an inexperienced player against NorthEast could cost him dearly.

The good news is that left-back Subhasish Bose will be available after missing the last match against Mumbai City with suspension. With him back in left, Pritam Kotal could get his right-back position back. The

“Sandesh is a very important player for us. But he will not be able to play against NorthEast. We have to play another player in his position. But we have 25 players in the squad,” Habas said. “We have to evaluate the players and the team tomorrow and after that, I will make a decision on the Playing XI. We have some injuries.”

With injuries, it won’t be easy for ATKMB, especially with NorthEast on a roll. But Habas said the team is ready to face the challenge. “They have had a very good season. It will be a very difficult game for us. They have very good players in defence, midfield and attack. He (Khalid Jamil) is working really well and they have a balanced team. But we will be up for the challenge,” Habas said.

Jamil refuses to take credit

For NorthEast it has been a remarkable season. After going winless in seven matches, the former I-League winner with Aizawl FC was promoted to the interim head coach post after firing Spaniard Gerard Nus. While Indian coaches are generally considered on a temporary basis, Jamil had a point to prove. Under his tutelage, the Highlanders went on a nine-match unbeaten run, winning six matches and drawing three.

But Jamil refuses to take credit. “All the players have worked very hard. Because of them, we have reached here. I never think about the nine matches. It’s about right from the first game. The boys have worked hard and I am very proud to be their coach,” the former East Bengal and Mumbai FC coach said.

However, against the defending champions, it will not be easy. ATKMB have enough firepower to win against NorthEast. In addition, the Mariners have been excellent in defence, conceding only 15 goals in the league so far.

“We are going to play against a good team. ATK Mohun Bagan are a good side. Defensively strong and their attack is strong too. We have to be very careful as the first match is very important. It will be the toughest game of the league. So we will have to prepare well and we will have to be strong.” Jamil said.