Slavko Damjanovic and Pritam Kotal were ATK Mohun Bagan’s strongest points of defence in the ISL final as they forced the match into penalties after extra-time.
Imagine this. You are one of India’s biggest football clubs chasing its maiden Indian Super League (ISL) title. You bring in big-name signings, including the famous name of Pogba. Not the World Cup winner. Paul’s slightly lesser-known brother, Florentin Pogba.
But mid-season, you lose most of your defenders to injury. The wall has cracks and the wildlings are coming.
It is here that the ISL side ATK Mohun Bagan proved its mettle, bringing in new players and finally winning the title after beating Bengaluru FC in the final on Saturday.
One of the most important stars in the win was Slavko Damjanovic – the Montenegrin center-back, who has had a dream second spell in the league.
“Coming into one of the biggest clubs in India, I played here after a stint in another club and we won here this time,” he tells Sportstar in an exclusive interview after the win.
“So happy for my teammates. They gave the best on the field. It’s a very good team, a great club and we deserve the title.”
Damjanovic had joined ATK Mohun Bagan at a time when the club had lost three of its most important first-team players, Pogba, Tiri and Joni Kauko, to injury.
“I was playing in Serbia (with first-division side Novi Pazar) but I terminated my contract to come to India. I knew about ATK (ATK Mohun Bagan) and it is good for my career to play in India, to develop more as a footballer for the future,” he says.
A 6ft 2 center-back, Damjanovic’s frame is one of his biggest advantages and being left-footed has worked wonders for the defender; starting attacks from the back, mitigating opposition passes behind the defence and pairing perfectly with captain Pritam Kotal – a right-footed centre-back.
The 30-year-old was one of the bright spots in a tepid Chennaiyin FC last season alongside Vishal Kaith, both of whom have found form at the Kolkata-based club.
Damjanovic resumed his ISL stint against his former club, coming on from the bench but found the net at the most opportune moment for ATK Mohun Bagan – against its arch-rival East Bengal in the Kolkata derby.
“Amazing fan support,” he says, “It’s different to Chennaiyin FC. I played some good football there but this, too, is one of the biggest clubs in India.”
Since the derby, he has not missed a single minute of football for the Mariners. Compared to his previous season, his passing has improved.
With Chennaiyin FC, Damjanovic had 32.26 passes per game with a passing accuracy of 82.7 per cent. Under Juan Ferrando (ATKMB head coach), his passing accuracy has improved with a figure of 86.2 per cent.
In the air, too, he has looked more clinical from set-pieces, finding the net for the first time in two seasons.
In the final, while both the in-form Sunil Chhetri and former ISL Golden Ball winner Roy Krishna got on the scoresheet, Damjanovic and his men did not allow them to get enough scoring opportunities, in what was a 2-2 thriller, which the Mariners won on penalties.
This season, we had in mind that every game is important and we entered the final with the same mentality. (Ferrando) He has quality. He is a great manager. He kept saying that if we give our best, we will win. Even after 90 minutes, this is what he said.
“And then penalties happened. Sometimes you need luck in football and we had it last night,” he says.
ATKMB converted all four penalties while BFC missed twice – one of its spot-kicks (by Bruno Ramires) being saved while the other (by Pablo Perez) was off target – giving the title to the Mariners.
“Amazing celebrations yesterday – with the team, the staff, great night. Everyone in my family is very happy. My son, my father everyone is elated. Time to move on to the next tournament [Super Cup] now,” exclaims the Montenegrin, who flew to Kolkata from Goa this morning.
“Again here in Kolkata, it is amazing. The people and the fans. I want to tell them, thank you! Thank you for supporting us. You have been very supportive fans – too much power, too much energy,’” he added.
Damjanovic’s days with the club, however, remain numbered for now. Signed in the winter transfer window, his contract runs out in May this year.
But after winning his and the club’s maiden ISL title, he has his eyes set on the Super Cup – another trophy his side has never won.
“No ISL club has approached me yet but we will see. My contract is getting over. I will continue to give my best – in training and on the field – for ATK Mohun Bagan and hope to get the best out of the Super Cup,” he says.
With a trophy already in the bag and a Super Cup ahead, the 30-year-old seeks rest now. He has a flight scheduled for Montenegro and a family waiting for him on the other side.
“I will go home, watch my family, my son, and my daughter and will hope to keep myself in shape. I will train at home,” he says.