Kolkata, September 28: ATK and Kerala Blasters have played so many important fixtures since the start of the Hero Indian Super League in 2014, that even four years and four editions later, they still retain some freshness.
These sides have already played two gripping finals, including one in the first edition at DY Patil Stadium Mumbai and one at a jam-packed home ground of Kerala Blasters in 2016. They’ve played the opening match of last season too and as they square up again in the opening game of the Hero ISL 2018-19 season, there is so much of excitement in the air.
ATK, twice champions, has a 5-1 win record over their rivals from Kerala but when they march out at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, Kolkata, on Saturday, they will be just as anxious. With several new recruits, many of them established performers in the ISL in the past, ATK have shown that they mean business after missing out on a playoff last season. With a team that has foreign players like Kalu Uche, Everton Santos, Gerson Vieira and Manuel Lanzarote, no wonder the fans are smacking their lips in anticipation.
“For the last two years, I might not have had those players that could give that something extra in the final third. This time we have Lanzarote, Everton, Kalu and Balwant (Singh) who could do that with the ball. I will do my best to create them opportunities but it is all about balance in the team,” said new coach Steve Coppell, who took Kerala Blasters to the final in 2016 and lost, curiously, against ATK.
However, ATK will miss the services of Kalu Uche as the Nigerian is yet to arrive in Kolkata, pending Visa, while their India recruit Arnab Mondal has been replaced by Sandeep Singh. Arnab will be out of action for 4 to 6 weeks due to knee ligament strain.
Coppell will be hoping for complete match fitness for Andre Bikey. “Andre is almost near recovery. We will take call on him tomorrow.”
In the opposite dug out, the man in the hot seat will be a familiar face. Former England goalkeeper David James has had a taste of the ATK-Kerala Blasters rivalry, given that he was the player-coach of the team that lost the inaugural ISL final. The former Liverpool custodian has seen the battle up close and believes it’s the fiercest in ISL.
“Rivalry between Kerala and ATK is the biggest in ISL. Both teams have played two finals, close ones at that. Of course, ATK have the upperhand when it comes to dominance. Also, the fixture will have the biggest attendance figures in the league stage,” said James.
These, however, are early days in the new season and like James said, “as much as we want to win against ATK, one game will not define the season.”
The opening game will see Kerala miss the services of India defender Anas Edathodika who is serving a three-match ban. With Anas in the stands, the onus of defending the Kerala fort will be on captain Sandesh Jhingan and co, particularly against an attack that has Kalu Uche and Lanzarote, both proven goal creators and scorers.
Kerala have had their own reinforcements too. James will be hoping the likes of Matej Poplatnik and Slavisa Stojanovic adapt to the league quickly and add the much-required firepower up front, something that Kerala lacked last year.
Ugandan star Keziron Kizito and Ghanaian winger Courage Pekuson will be expected to provide support to the strikers.
“The recruitment was important. We can get best players who are not particularly great people. We have recruited good players who were great for the team. I think the bonding over the pre-season has been very good,” he said.
With so much of firepower at both ends, it is unlikely that the result will be the same as the opening game of last season when the teams drew a blank. More likely, it will go down to the wire.