ATK were flying high in the first week of February, having beaten Jamshedpur FC 3-0 away, to get closer to a confirmed ISL playoffs spot. Captain and central defender Agus Garcia then got some bad news from home, and had to leave to be with family in Spain.
The two-time champions put in a professional effort in their next match six days on, beating an Odisha FC that was still in the race for the top four places, 3-1, with Fijian striker Roy Krishna leading the way with a hat trick. Krishna would then accept the player of the match award in Agus' number 14 jersey, and then click pictures with his teammates and with ball kids at the Salt Lake Stadium with the same jersey on.
It is this togetherness, and their outstanding form this season, that make ATK partial favourites over two legs of their ISL semi-final against champions Bengaluru FC (BFC), though Kerala Blasters midfielder Darren Caldeira, who has played for both clubs in the past, believes the contest is too close to call.
"On their day, BFC are really good. Defensively, they are super strong. They've got set pieces that they bank on," says Caldeira. "But then you've got ATK and their attack. It's anybody's game, to be honest."
The ATK frontline of Krishna and Australian David Williams has been one of the most potent combinations this season. An injury saw Williams sit out a few games in the latter part, but his five goals and four assists have gone well with Krishna's 14 goals and five assists.
It helped that Krishna and Williams were bringing in their chemistry of having played together for Wellington Phoenix in the A-League. Krishna had been Golden Boot winner for the club in two of the last three years, and picked up the last two player of the year awards. There seems a telepathy between the two about positioning, likely direction of runs, and the correct amount of weight to put into through passes, that rival defences have found difficult to prepare for.
However, behind what has looked like an entertaining high-scoring brand of football -- only FC Goa with 46 goals have more than ATK's 33 after the league stage -- has been compactness and organisation in defence. Discipline, both on and off the pitch, is a watchword for coach Antonio Habas, according to former ATK and India defender Arnab Mondal, who played under Habas during the first two seasons of the ISL.
"He always says that as professional footballers, we have to make sacrifices to achieve anything. To maintain his standards of discipline, all players need to be physically and mentally strong through the year," says Mondal. "He also wants you to give everything on the pitch. Another thing about him is that he never has a first-choice eleven. This keeps everybody in the team on their toes."
What has stood out for ATK this season is how many Indian players, young and old, have weighed in with consistency and quality. Arindam Bhattacharya has probably been the best goalkeeper for them in a single season, but there have also been massive shifts put in by young defender Sumit Rathi, right wing-back Prabir Das, Pritam Kotal, who Mondal says needed a good season coming back from an injury sustained during national duty in 2019. Caldeira highlights how effortlessly Jayesh Rane has slotted into a central midfield role from his preferred place along the wings, and then Balwant Singh chipped in with a winner in a game against NorthEast United where ATK seemed outplayed for most part, but scored the only goal in injury-time.
Both Caldeira and Mondal agree playing the first leg away, on March 1 at the Kanteerava Stadium, will suit ATK just fine. "You have to ensure that you don't drop points under any circumstances. If you win, nothing like it, but even a draw is a great result," says Mondal. Caldeira says, "Any away goal that you nick in the process is just a bonus, but you must first aim for a clean sheet."
It's something ATK have done quite effectively this season -- their four away wins is a record bettered only by Goa, but ATK are the only team to have done so with a clean sheet every time.
With a title win and a close semi-final exit under his belt, Habas knows what mindset teams need going into ISL playoffs, though much the same could be said of BFC's three-year stay in the league. The two also rounded off their league engagements last weekend at the Kanteerava in an entertaining 2-2 draw, though the home side rested most of their key players.
"If you had asked me about a month back which team would be favourites, I would probably have gone with BFC, but over the last couple of weeks, they've had their AFC Cup matches and their full squad has been stretched out a bit. ATK are much better rested, and that evens out the contest to a great extent," says Caldeira.