In the aftermath of a tumultuous final, when the trophy had been won, and the on-field celebrations died down, ATK Mohun Bagan coach Juan Ferrando, and captain, Pritam Kotal, spoke about “fighting” and “belief”. The 2022-23 Indian Super League season hadn’t been easy, the final hadn’t been without setbacks. But Bagan, fondly called the Mariners, waded through tough waters to earn their first ISL title.
Under Ferrando, the team has found an added layer of grit. Their steely, defensive style of play hasn’t won them much stock with the loyal, and fervent, ATK Mohun Bagan fan base, but it helped them survive the turbulent ISL playoffs and the edge-of-the-knife drama of the final against Bengaluru FC. After trailing 1-2 in the second half, Bagan fought back to take the match to extra time and beat Bengaluru 4-3 on penalties on Sunday.
“After the 1-2 score, the team was in difficult moments, (we had) injuries, physical problems but at the end of the day, they are fighting. They were fighting till the last minute,” said Ferrando.
"Obviously today I'm happy because we won the trophy, but people forget difficult matches. The team has shown good character and motivation in all those difficult moments. Of course, we need to improve and change a lot of things. But showing character is the most important and the basic thing in football.”
In a League of their own
While the playoffs of this season’s ISL was dramatic, at times explosive, the League stage, in sharp contrast, was utterly dominated by one team: Mumbai City FC. The rest of the teams took their time settling in, find the right men for the right job, but Mumbai were up and flying. Leading the charge was the revitalised Lallianzuala Chhangte, who stormed past opponents on the right wing. The 25-year-old Indian, with 10 goals and six assists to his name, won the ISL Golden Ball award for best player. Meanwhile, 12: Diego Mauricio of Odisha FC, Cleiton Silva of East Bengal FC and Dimitri Petratos of ATK Mohun Bagan finished the season as the joint top scorers with 12 goals each.
Playing attractive, exciting football, Mumbai City FC, managed by Des Buckingham, a former Oxford teacher, went on a record-breaking run. They were unbeaten in the first 18, of a total 20, league matches. They finished at the top of the standings with 46 points – most by a team in a season – to win the ISL League Winners Shield. That puts them in contention for the 2023-24 AFC Champions League spot.
But things started to get awry when they visited Bengaluru for the penultimate game of the League season. Their midfield talisman Greg Stewart had picked up a minor injury during the warm-up. As a precaution, with the playoffs in sights, Mumbai decided to rest him. They lost the match, 1-2, and the momentum.
Their incredible season ended with two league defeats and a loss in the semi-finals. After the teams were tied at 2-2 over two legs of the semis, Mumbai lost 8-9 on penalties.
“It's a bit of a heartbreaking way to exit the playoff stage,” said Buckingham. “But overall when you put it over the last 10 to 12 months, very proud of what we've been able to do and that includes the season, but more so how we've gone about playing to do that and also achieving success.”
By the end of the season, Mmbai City FC could point to a host of records: Most points in a season (46); Most away points in a season (25); Most wins in a season (14); Most consecutive wins (11); Most goals scored in a season (54); Best goal difference in a season (33).
Two teams, two comeback stories
Mumbai City FC may have won the hearts of football fans with their beautiful game. But ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC persevered their way to the final.
Kolkata’s legacy club, which entered the ISL in 2020 after a merger with three-time champions ATK, were hampered by injuries and forced to change the team formation. They lost foreign recruits Joni Kauko and Florentin Pogba to injury by December while key players Hugo Boumous and Manvir Singh were also sidelined for a while. In the closing stages of the tournament, defender Brendan Hamill was replaced by Slavko Damjanovic.
Weathering a rough spell, where they won only two of the nine matches played, Bagan made the playoffs due to their defensive prowess. They had nine clean sheets and conceded second fewest goals (17, only worse than Hyderabad FC’s 16) in the League season.
Meanwhile, Bengaluru FC, who had started the season with promise by winning the Durand Cup, were nowhere to be seen by the middle of the ISL season. The much-anticipated partnership between Roy Krishna and Indian legend Sunil Chhetri hadn’t quite played out as well as the team hoped. In the first 12 matches of the season, Bengaluru collected just 10 points.
The 2018-19 ISL champions, however, turned the season around by winning their final eight matches. They switched to a three-man defence and relied heavily on India’s No. 1 goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (League leading 71 saves) to keep them in play. Young Indian stars Rohit Kumar and Sivashakti engineered Bengaluru’s rise up the table. But in the closing stages of the tournament it was Chhetri who once again rose to the occasion.
Chhetri is 38 and doesn’t always start games now. But his freekick against Kerala Blasters, which was the flashpoint of the season, once again showed that he’s still the most mentally agile player on the pitch. After his team won a freekick in the 97th minute in the first knockout game, Chhetri quickly chipped the ball and scored the goal. Kerala Blasters argued that the Indian star had started play before the wall was organised. But Chhetri had seen Kerala’s goalkeeper Prabhsukhan Gill come off the line and checked with the referee before taking the freekick. The goal stood. Kerala Blasters walked off, handing Bengaluru a 1-0 win.
Against Mumbai, in the first leg of the semi-final, Chhetri was once again the difference. Mumbai’s pressing game had Bengaluru on the backfoot almost throughout the match, but the 38-year-old, who had come off the bench in the 57th minute to loud cheers from fans of both teams, scored in the 79th minute. It was the only goal of the match and Bengaluru carried a 1-0 edge in the semi-final. It proved crucial as Bengaluru was handed their first regulation time defeat after nine wins on the trot, when the second leg ended 2-1 in Mumbai’s favour, 2-2 on aggregate.
“Nobody gave us any opportunity, any chance we'd get to this stage of the season,” Bengaluru coach Simon Grayson said after the final. “What we did is we proved a lot of people wrong and we've had an unbelievable period of time.”
Both Bagan and Bengaluru scraped into the final after winning the respective penalty shootouts. Bengaluru ended Mumbai’s run as they edged them 9-8 in penalties. Bagan took on Hyderabad FC, who finished second this season, in the second semi-final. After both the matches ended 0-0, Bagan snuck through 4-3 in the penalty shootout.
The final not only pitted two teams with the biggest fan bases, but was also a contest between two of the league’s best goalkeepers: Sandhu and Bagan’s Vishal Kaith (golden glove award winner). And they were called into play frequently throughout the tense, nervy championship match. Three of the four goals in regulation time were scored off penalties: Dimitri Petratos scored from the spot for Bagan in the 14th and 85th minutes while Chhetri scored for Bengaluru in the 45th minute. Roy Krishna put Bengaluru 2-1 ahead briefly when he headed the ball home from close range against his former team.
In the penalty shootout, however, it was Kaith who rose above. As Bruno Ramires took the third shot for Bengaluru, Kaith guessed right and punched the ball away to earn his team an advantage. Players in the legendary maroon and green jersey, came, saw, andscored coolly. As Pablo Perez missed Bengaluru’s final penalty the Bagan players stormed the pitch in celebration. “We believed in ourselves, even when we were trailing 1-2,” said Kotal. “Then we scored one, we just kept going…We fought as a team for 120 minutes.”
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.