PANAJI -- ATK Mohun Bagan head coach Antonio Lopez Habas is not satisfied with his team's preparation as they gear up to begin their Indian Super League (ISL) title defence against Kerala Blasters FC at the GMC Stadium in Bambolim, Goa, on November 20. This will be followed by the much-anticipated Kolkata Derby against arch-rivals SC East Bengal in Fatorda on November 22.
"Honestly, I didn't get the kind of preparation I needed for the several rules in the Covid-19 situation," Habas said in Panaji. "The footballers did not get on-field training for the (number of) days they needed. There was no opportunity to play practice matches," he added.
The entire league will be played behind closed doors under a bio-secure bubble in Goa across three venues -- Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (Fatorda), GMC Stadium (Bambolim), and Tilak Maidan (Vasco). With Covid-19 restrictions in place, the footballers had to spend 14 days in quarantine before beginning their preparations on the pitch.
At the moment, the two-time ISL-winning coach has named a 27-member squad with five rotational captains. The Spaniard, with his foreign recruits, had joined the squad only in mid-October but had to serve a quarantine period first. "After such a short period of practice, there is a possibility that the footballers will get injured. I'm afraid of injuries," Habas said.
Incidentally, SC East Bengal, coached by Robbie Fowler, were the last to start their preparations following their dramatic entry into the top-tier league.
Habas clarified that his comments on insufficient preparation weren't an excuse and that the situation is 'almost the same' for all teams. He further said playing behind closed doors will affect the players' enthusiasm. "There will be no spectators in the stadium during this 'new normal'. Playing on a field without spectators affects the footballers' enthusiasm. But there is nothing to do," he said.
Last season, ATK lost their two matches against Kerala Blasters but went on to lift the title for a record third time. Four days before the opener, however, Habas does not want to give importance to last season's results.
"We lost but we also became champions. And in football, the result of the previous match remains only as statistics.
"I don't think the impact of last year's Kerala match will be felt on Friday. I said earlier and I will say again that the first match against Kerala last year, we could not win due to some wrong decisions of the referee." He reminded how refereeing wasn't up to the mark.
"And it would have been justified if the match at Yuba Bharati (in Kolkata) was a draw. But there too, the refereeing was not good," he rued.
This time the Green-and-Maroon brigade is bolstered by the inclusion of Sandesh Jhingan, Brad Inman, and Shubhashis Bose. But Habas does not want to put his team ahead before playing against Kerala. "Kerala has a new good coach. He has also signed several good footballers. Kerala is a strong team," Habas said.
Kibu Vicuna, under whose coaching Mohun Bagan won the I-League last season, is now the head coach of Kerala, making the opener a bit of a contest between the past and the present.
But Habas played down the pre-match hype.
"Last time, he (Vicuna) had a good season. He won the I-League and we became the ISL champions. The match is important for both the teams. But our goal will be for getting those three points," he signed off.