ATANU MITRA (@Atanu00 on Twitter)
The showdown is almost upon us but alas, there's little excitement ahead of it in Kolkata. Antonio Lopez Habas, the architect of Atletico de Kolkata's victory in the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League (ISL), has returned to city for the first time as an opponent coach and while the tension is palpable among the two squads, it has failed to be the talking point among the local football fans. The hosts have already made it to the last four for the third consecutive season, becoming the first team to achieve this feat, while Pune will be returning home empty-handed once again.
Habas, the most talked-about character ahead of this tie, looks calm and once again rues the injuries of his key players ahead of the season.
"I have great affection for the fans of Kolkata and I will always remember the two years I spent here. I am flattered to be an important part of the short history of the club. However, I am getting great support in Pune City too," he tells Goal with a smile before the face-off.
While the first two seasons saw his team make it to the knock-out rounds, this season has followed a different trajectory but the veteran thinks there are a few positives to take home.
"Yes, we had won the first season and reached the semis last time around. In Pune City, we have not been able to repeat that becasue the team has been inconsistent. We had some brilliant moments in one match, but failed to repeat them in the next. It is possible that we have lacked an offensive capability to make come-backs. However, it has to be noted that we have won against Mumbai City, Atletico de Kolkata and Delhi Dynamos - the three strongest teams in the competition," he notes.
The franchise lost their marquee player Eidur Gudjohnsen and star defender Andre Bikey due to injuries before the start of the season. Habas opined that this was a major jolt to the side's title hopes which they struggled to recover from.
"Losing Bikey and Gudjohnsen at the start of the season means we had to change our way of playing. We had to replace the players and switch to a different formation. I want to thanks my players who showed exemplary effort and professionalism on and off the pitch to cope with the problems. Mohamed Sissoko has been a benchmark for others in terms of professionalism and delivering for the team," he noted.
Habas also sent his condolences for the footballers who lost their lives when a plane carrying the Chapecoense football team crashed in Colombia a couple of days ago.
The tactician who took Bolivia to the Copa America final almost two decades ago, has another year left in his contract and like every other stakeholder of Indian football, is keeping a close eye on how the proposed road-map for Indian football is rolled out in near future.
"Depending on the format of the league in the next season, we are going full throttle to establish Pune City as one of the best clubs in India. The Indian players have made some progress playing in the league but we need to develop three aspects further. Those are grassroots, facilities and the medical services at the club," he remarked.
The opportunity of growth for the outfit also excites the gaffer who is a few months shy from turning 60.
"We have a very good base as a club and now we will have to grow further. We need to improve both in terms of quality of football and extending our fan-base. The club needs to grow to a bigger organization within the premises of Indian football," he said.
Habas once again vented his frustration about the fixture list of the ISL as his team are playing five of their last six matches away from home.
"The owners, who are putting in so much effort to run the team doesn't deserve this. We are playing our last three matches on the road, so our season is most likely to be defined during the away matches. For me, this is a lack of respect for the club and also for professionals like us who work in Pune," the coach, who has had a 47-match career in the short history of the tournament along with the likes of Zico and Marco Materazzi, said.
The Spanish professional stressed that it has been an enriching experience coaching in India.
"I think Marco and Zico will also agree to that. We have stuck around here for three years and look forward to some more adventures," he laughed while signing off.