When Hyderabad FC and ATK Mohun Bagan cross swords in the first leg of the second semifinal, both will be put through the wringer and their consistency will be tested to the core, in the 2021-22 Hero Indian Super League here on Saturday.
The Athletic Stadium in Bambolim will host the mega fixture between two sides who have really looked the part for most parts of the season, Hyderabad sitting pretty at the top of the heap for a copious amount of time and ATKMB finding their mojo under Juan Ferrando after former coach Antonio Lopez Habas parted ways with the Mariners midway into the season.
Hyderabad are in the midst of their most successful season in the Hero ISL. They finished third in the league stage and qualified for the semi-finals for the first time ever, but their dominance was there for all to see. Manolo Marquez's men won 11 of their 20 games and were in pole position to win the league Shield but for Jamshedpur who thrashed them 3-0 in a crucial game towards the end of the league stages. It was a depleted Hyderabad side and the result was an aberration by all means to what has been a spectacular season for them.
At the heart of their success has been the talismanic striker Bartholomew Ogbeche who has so far banged in a whopping 17 goals in 17 games, missing the last two games due to illness.
"We are recovering. We are preparing, and in terms of physical condition, we will have to wait till the last moment to see how the players are. We are ready to play a very strong side," Marquez said.
"The good part is that this is the first time you reach the semifinals. The players will be nervous but in my opinion, the players will play freely and we have to enjoy this historic moment," he added.
"We need to play in a very good way because I think the four teams that finished in the top four are the four strongest teams in the competition. So we can expect two good games."
ATK Mohun Bagan, meanwhile, have had a massive turnaround under Ferrando losing just once and winning 14 games to finish third in the table. Ferrando focussed more on a passing game and that paid rich dividends as the green and maroon side went on a 15-game unbeaten run before losing to Jamshedpur in the final league game.
For ATKMB, the likes of Liston Colaco and Manvir Singh have been brilliant throughout the season scoring 14 goals between them. Roy Krishna also found his scoring boots in a 1-0 win over Chennaiyin FC and along with David Williams the duo have a deadly record in the knockout stages. Williams has scored five goals and provided one assist in the knockout stages for the last two seasons while Krishna is the joint-highest assist provider with five assists and one goal to his name in six appearances in semis and finals.
"We are playing a very good team. They have a great squad. Hyderabad, after 20 games, will want to enjoy the playoffs and this is the reason they are a difficult team to beat. They have been brilliant this season and it has been perfect for them," Ferrando said.
On Ogbeche, Ferrando said, "We have a plan. I can't explain now. Our plan will be to keep the ball, find spaces and attack. This is the plan against Hyderabad."
ATKMB have an unbeaten record against Hyderabad and this season the two teams have shared the spoils once with ATKMB getting the better of their rivals on the other occasion.