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How Mohun Bagan become the ISL Shield winners thanks to Antonio Lopez Habas 2.0

Delhi, New: Many Mohun Bagan supporters weren’t sure what to expect from Antonio Lopez Habas when he was called in to turn around their struggling campaign during the January transfer window.

The seasoned professional was known for being a “defensive coach” in addition to being a straight-talking man. Habas was certain that there was a “balance” between offense and defense and took great offense at the label.

Nonetheless, many saw the irony of bringing back the player who was benched for Juan Ferrando halfway through the 2021–22 campaign, since their highly paid squad had a wealth of talented attackers.

However, it seemed that their embarrassing wealth was insufficient, as they were eliminated from the AFC Cup group stage after three straight losses in the Indian Super League and a hat-trick of losses in the AFC Cup.

Following their season-opening Durand Cup triumph, it was clear that 43-year-old Ferrando was unable to rein in inflated egos and come up with sufficient ideas to sustain consistency, as they found themselves 10 points behind FC Goa, the then-leaders.

It required a skilled manager who can work with players and instill in them a sense of discipline and attention. With this motto in mind, Habas has won two ISL Cups.

Prior to assuming leadership, Habas served as technical director and was aware of the skill level of the present Bagan players. The Spaniard took over before the ISL started after the break for the AFC Asian Cup, having watched from the sidelines as they were eliminated from the Super Cup following a defeat to East Bengal.

Have faith in the procedure
In his first match, they overcame a 2-0 deficit to force a 2-2 draw in the Kolkata Derby. After that, they won three games in a row: 2-0 against Hyderabad, 1-0 away at Goa, and 4-2 against NorthEast United.

“Coach Habbas declared following the FC Goa game, ‘If you trust me and my work, we will be champions.'” And look, we are,” Habas assistant Manuel Cascallana said after their first-ever ISL Shield victory on Monday, a 2-1 victory against Mumbai City.

Following his appointment as manager, Habas immediately instituted penalties for players who failed to show up for practice on time.

Before the draw against East Bengal on February 3, the players’ fitness and awareness of their tactical needs were enhanced by two daily training sessions over a two-week period.

Habas knew he had more than enough weaponry on his team—just some “tough love,” as Cascallana pointed out.

“In the ISL, we have the finest team in India. All we ask is that they play together. We can defeat anybody if they can perform as a cohesive unit. Thus, it was rather simple. They gelled right away and put in a lot of effort both on the training field and during the game, according to Cascallana.

The decision to replace the volatile Hugo Boumous with the more composed Joni Kauko conveyed the idea that no one was necessary. Asserting that everyone is welcome as long as they follow his instructions on the field and in training, Deepak Tangri was recalled, along with young players Dippendu Biswas, Amandeep, and Abhishek Suryawanshi.

Following a goalless draw with Odisha, the team won three straight games, 3-0 against Jamshedpur, 3-1 against East Bengal, and 4-3 against the Kerala Blasters, to regain momentum.

After defeating East Bengal in the second leg, Habas said, “Do you remember in the 19/20 season, everyone said that Habas is so defensive, he parks the bus in the goal?”

“We now have guys who can engage in offensive football. We now have the personnel needed to play aggressive football, which is our philosophy. In 2015, the squad was more offensive than any other team. However, it goes beyond just assaulting; when you both protect and attack, the transitions are complete.

Authority seal
By that point, the club had settled on a three-man defense, switching to a four-man unit to hold onto leads in the second half and switch between Armando Sadiku and Jason Cummins, the two marquee additions who had struggled at first but were now clearly active and hungry.

Their season may have failed due to an unexpected 3-2 defeat to Chennaiyin during the two weeks he was absent due to a serious ailment.

However, his dependable subordinate Cascallana, who had accompanied him during his last sojourn in Bagan, continued in the same manner, putting into practice all of Habas’s concepts while conversing on a walkie-talkie.

After defeating Bengaluru away and defeating Punjab 1-0 in New Delhi, they faced Mumbai, the reigning Shield winners and an old foe who had defeated them in eight previous ISL games. They needed to win to secure their first ISL league championship.

It was a high-stakes contest that required Habas to be there. Even though he was far from 100% well, the 67-year-old remained in the bench for the 2-1 victory against Mumbai thanks to runs from Liston Colaco and Cummins.

“I had twice won the ISL Cup, but not the Shield.” Thus, it benefits me,” Habas said, shrugging his shoulders as usual.

“They have quality players, they bring the energy, and they changed the coach halfway through.” Coach Petr Kratky of Mumbai doffed his head and said, “So credit also to them (for) how they managed the game and to win.”

If being able to adapt is a sign of a competent coach, Habas shown a lot of it during his second stint at Mohun Bagan.

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