Margao, Mar 13 (PTI) ATK and Chennaiyin FC will seek a hat-trick of ISL titles here on Saturday when they meet in the 6th edition's final, which will be played without spectators owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though for a different reason, this is the second time that an ISL match will be played in an empty stadium after the league stage game between NorthEast United FC and Bengaluru FC was held behind closed doors in Guwahati in the wake of the protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Assam.
The season has been a landmark one in many ways. While it has produced high quality football, the sport's governing body AIFF has granted ISL the top-tier domestic competition status.
The league phase winners of the ISL, FC Goa will become the first Indian side to directly play in the group stage of the AFC Champions League, the top club league of Asia.
ATK (2014 and 2016) and Chennaiyin (2015 and 2017-18) have both won the ISL twice already and are looking to become the first side to win it three times.
But, in an anti-climax of sort, there will be no spectators to witness the historic moment as the final will be played in front of an empty stadium. This is in line with a sports ministry directive to all national federations to follow the health ministry's advisory and avoid large gatherings in sports events.
The two teams were brilliant in the play-offs with Chennaiyin getting the better of FC Goa in a thrilling two-legged tie that finished 6-5 on aggregates, while ATK produced a second leg turnaround to send defending champions Bengaluru FC packing with a 3-2 win on aggregate.
This is the first time that these two clubs are meeting each other in the final. Interestingly, neither club has lost an ISL final -- a run that will end for one of them on Saturday.
The two sides are also on equal footing this season. In the league stages, ATK defeated Chennaiyin in Chennai before the team from the south returned the favour in Kolkata.
While ATK have been one of the most consistent sides this season, Chennaiyin were left to produce a miracle to reach this stage after Owen Coyle took charge of them at the start of last December.
In the six matches before his arrival, Chennaiyin had won only once and scored just four goals. Since he took charge, Chennaiyin went on to win eight matches, a tally bettered only by FC Goa.
Now Coyle is a win away from completing a miracle. Key to this turnaround has been the form of Chennaiyin's attack that has produced goals whenever necessary.
Nerijus Valskis has 14 goals to his name and is fighting for the top scorer award, while Rafael Crivellaro is the creative engine of the team.
The partnership between the two has blossomed under Coyle. Winger Lallianzuala Chhangte has also been brilliant and has scored in their last three games, becoming the first Indian to score in both the legs of a play-off tie.
"I have nothing but utmost respect for ATK, for the quality of players they have. We will stick to our style because we believe we can win games with it. We are still under pressure as we go into the final and we want to be because that's when we are at our best," said Coyle.
ATK, on the other hand, rely on Roy Krishna and David Williams' contributions in attack. Krishna, with 15 goals this season, is also firmly in the race for the Golden Boot.
But equally dangerous is Williams who scored a brace against Bengaluru in the play-off. While the likes of Edu Garcia and Javier Hernandez provide supply from the middle, wing-back Prabir Das is a crucial attacking outlet for the Kolkata-based side.
"We have to enjoy the final and try to win it. But we have to respect the opponent. There is only one final. We need one heart and the whole mind for the final," said coach Antonio Habas who led ATK to the title back in 2014.
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