ISL 2020-21: It's not about who can win title, it's about who can challenge Habas, ATKMB

ATK Mohun Bagan players, including Carl McHugh (front), celebrate a late goal by Roy Krishna that gave the team a win over Odisha FC on December 3, 2020. Vipin Pawar/Sportzpics for ISL

Clean sheet. Roy Krishna goal. ATK Mohun Bagan win.

So predictable that it's borderline mundane. And, it's set the tone for the Indian Super League (ISL) 2020-21 season.

Less than two weeks into the new campaign, with each team having played fewer than three games, Antonio Habas and ATK Mohun Bagan have already made one thing clear. This season is not about who can mount a title challenge. It's about who can challenge Habas and ATKMB for the title.

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You can talk about the long and dull periods that form the majority of their games, when they do so little with the ball, and force the opposition down to an annoyingly similar trudge. You can point to their predictability, or their overreliance Roy Krishna. You can go on about Habas' rigid and consistent conservativism - he'd probably start with seven defensive players even if they face Indian Arrows tomorrow.

Or you can ignore all this, and focus on the simplest and most tangible aspects in measurement of success in football: Games won and trophies gathered.

ATKMB have played three, won three and are yet to concede a goal this season. That's as good a start as any.

There's a reason ATK have been (and by the looks of it, ATKMB will likely continue to be) ISL's most efficient side and Habas the league's most successful coach. While some may view his tactics as regressive, Habas has quietly finetuned it into a brilliant template.

There's no denying that ATKMB can be agonising to watch at times. It's also true that some teams might eventually figure out a way to disrupt this gameplan, but until there are enough of those who can, could you really blame Habas for sticking to his formula?

In many ways, Habas and ATK are the ISL version of Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid, incidentally the former co-owners and the team that inspired Atletico de Kolkata's original name and colours. While Simeone's achievements have come at a much more elite level, he is a similarly divisive figure as a manager. Simeone has mastered the art of building teams with a certain character -- gritty, hard to break down, devastating on the counter, clinical with the handful of chances they create, and always relishing a chance to topple the big boys. While many question his philosophy, even his harshest critics admire his execution.

With his own background in Spain, and particularly with Atléti - he spent a season there as a player (although he made zero appearances), and also began his coaching career with their reserves - Habas seems to carry a similar DNA. The challenge in India is obviously much different than the one Simeone and his team face in La Liga every season, but like El Cholo, Habas deserves praise for his understanding of Indian football and its requirements, getting the right players and getting the most out of them, and the surgical precision with which he executes his ideas.

With FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC both under new managers, Bengaluru FC looking like a shadow of their former selves, and SC East Bengal finding it tough to adjust to life in the ISL, ATKMB, even this early in the season, look like the team that can run away with it during the league stage. The only team capable standing in their way could be Sergio Lobera's Mumbai City FC. While Lobera is still putting final touches to his new (and rich) puzzle, he's the only manager with the experience and the resources to put up a realistic challenge. The fact that he doesn't face ATKMB until January 11, well into the season and with enough time for his squad to gel, could be an added advantage. With the contrasting styles of the two managers we've gotten used to throughout their ISL careers, that mouth-watering clash halfway through the season could well be a potential title-decider.

By then, though, Habas and ATKMB may have shifted the goalposts for the chasing pack.

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