ISL 2020-21: Why McHugh-Apuia battle will decide ATK Mohun Bagan vs NorthEast United

ATK Mohun Bagan players, including Carl McHugh (front), celebrate a late goal by Roy Krishna that gave the team a win over Odisha FC on December 3, 2020. Vipin Pawar/Sportzpics for ISL

He looked up. There he was, Roy Krishna, frizzy hair tied in that unmistakable bun, racing in behind a scared East Bengal defence. Having started in midfield, he had been sweeping up behind his centre backs when he received the ball. That was his remit, sweep, cover, protect, put out fires, prevent fires in the first place. Feed the ball to the creative players further forward, let them do what they do. This time, he thought, 'hell, why not?' He took a touch to steady himself, and almost instantly, with his weaker left swept forward a lovely long ball into the channel. One, two, three touches of Krishna's right boot, and it was ATK Mohun Bagan 1 - 0 East Bengal. They were leading in Indian football's greatest derby. 'Krishnaaaaaa', screamed the commentators. Everyone observing sang the praises of the league's deadliest striker.

A full length of the pitch away, he smiled, quietly accepted high fives from those around him and jogged forward to join in on the 'let's-all-jump-on-Krishna' huddle.

This was only his second assist in sixteen starts. He would play two more games, and wouldn't trouble the statisticians in either.

***

He was running. He was always running. Here, there, everywhere. Constant, intense. It was a corner, and even in that most static of phases, he had been on the move. When the ball had been cleared, he had made himself available for a pass. After all, it's what he had been doing all season. For nineteen games he had been a study in perpetual motion, so he wasn't going to stop in the twentieth, was he? He runs, he collects the ball, he moves it on, he runs again to be in position to intercept/receive a pass/provide a decoy. That's just what he does.

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Still moving as he trapped the ball, he punted it forward, and ran, before... he decided he'd run just about enough. And so, with barely a glance up, he absolutely leathered a shot off the crossbar and into the goal. 'CLANG!' One of the sweetest sounds in football echoed around the empty stadium. In celebration, he -- arms spread in happiness, goofy smile on his face, screaming for joy -- ran around his teammates for a bit. Of course, he did.

It was his first, and only goal, in twenty games this season.

***

If at a pinch, you were asked who those two were, you might be a little hard pressed to identify them. Sure, if you are a fan you might remember the first one because he assisted the opening goal of a derby. More still would recognise the second, because of that goal-of-the-season contender, and its relative recency. But if given only their numbers (2 assists and 1 goal, respectively, remember?), their position and role on the pitch, does not that task become a lot harder?

In a modern footballing world that can be obsessed with numbers and compilations of assorted tekkers, these are the kind of guys who quietly slip under the radar. Rarely seen in highlight packages or in viral videos. Hardly ever mentioned in headlines. There are bigger names on both teams. Ahead of them, beside them, behind them.

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There are players whose numbers make you swoon (Roy Krishna, 14 goals, leading the golden boot race), and those whose imagination make you croon (Federico Gallego, he of the velvet first touch and otherworldly vision). Characters whose sheer force of personality can overwhelm (Sandesh Jhingan, hello!) and others whose story arcs are straight out of a dream (Deshorn Brown, zero to hero in the proverbial blink of an eye). There are older statesmen, younger talents. Guys with better stats. Guys with more minutes on the pitch.

And yet, the two define their respective teams.

The first is Carl McHugh. Irish, 28, tough, safe, dependable, dirty-when-needed, disciplined, ever willing to cover and plug holes, perfectly content not to leave his own half in open play. Antonio Habas made into a footballer playing in a Habas team.

The second is Lalengmawia, Apuia to you and me. Indian, 20, tough, non-stop, a forward passing, looks-like-he's-in-both-boxes-at-the-same-time, recover-the-ball-and-start-a-counter-immediately machine. Khalid Jamil made into a footballer playing in a Jamil team.

They are the ideal footballer for each of their coaches. McHugh is the kind of senior player Habas trusts his life with. It's on the unseen sweat of such under-the-radar, experienced pro that the Spaniard has built such a hugely successful career. Apuia is the kind of young, raw talent that Jamil gets the most out of. It's in grooming them, and guiding them to great heights, that Jamil has built his tremendous reputation in Indian football.

On the field, the performances of these two can often dictate play for their respective teams. It's simple, really. When McHugh plays well (especially when in his preferred defensive midfield role), ATK Mohun Bagan rarely lose. He is, arguably, the most vital cog of the stingiest defence in the land. On the other side, the more Apuia sees of the ball, the more distance he covers off it, the better NorthEast play. This is a team that has bucked the odds and marched into the playoffs on the back of an intense work ethic and a proclivity to simply work harder than anyone else in the league. Apuia is the best at it in their team.

And so on Saturday they clash.

Oh, the narratives are many, the characters rich. Mighty ATK Mohun Bagan vs. the underdogs of NorthEast United. Goliath vs. David. Marcelinho vs. Gallego. Krishna's pursuit of the golden boot vs. Brown's continued search for redemption. Jhingan vs. Lambot. A team representing the city that is the soul of Indian football vs. a team representing its assembly line. Habas seeking unprecedented ISL glory vs. Jamil seeking acceptance for an entire nation's coaches.

The game, though, will arguably be decided by the answer to one question. Who had the better game? McHugh or Apuia?