Kolkata: Former champions ATK and two-time runners-up Kerala Blasters will look to renew their rivalry when they face-off in the opening match as the fifth edition of Indian Super League (ISL) gets underway here Saturday.
Both ATK and Kerala struggled to hit the ground running last season, witnessing changes in coaches in the middle of the league. While Kerala removed Rene Muelensteen and handed former Liverpool goalie David James the baton, ATK went a step ahead changing three coaches.
Though there were some glimpses of resurgence for Kerala under their former marquee player ending up sixth, it was a nightmare for the two-time champions ATK as they finished a disappointing ninth.
However, as the things stand currently, former Kerala coach Steve Coppell is at the helm of ATK along with Sanjoy Sen as his deputy and the duo has made several tactical recruitments – both domestic and overseas. ATK also had a fruitful pre-season in Spain and winning two out of their three matches they played.
Out of the seven foreigners ATK have roped in, six has prior ISL experiences and its shows the Kolkata based franchise will step on the ground with all boxes ticked.
However, Coppell 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of Kalu Uche as the Nigerian is yet to arrive in Kolkata, pending visa, while their India recruit Arnab Mondal has been replaced by Sandeep Singh.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. Big burly Cameroonian defender Andre Bikey is also uncertain for the opening game owing to fitness issues.
India international Pronay Halder and Manuel Lanzarote (both from FC Goa) are expected to manage the midfield along with young Hitesh Sharma and comeback man Eugeneson Lyngdoh.
The attacking lineup boasts of Nigerian Kalu Uche, who was the third highest goal scorer in ISL last year and Brazilian Everton Santos. Balwant Singh is also expected to make the starting XI.
Speaking to the pre-match press conference, Coppell said, “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.”
On the other hand, this will be first season for the yellow brigade without owner Sachin Tendulkar who sold his 20 per cent stakes and will seek a fresh identity in their bid for the elusive title.
Kerala also boast of a strong defence with foreigner duo of Cyril Kali and Nemanja Lakic-Pesic along with national team’s Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika in the team and it will be an interesting battle with ATK’s star attacking line-up.
Anas will miss the opening game because of the three-match ban and that means the onus will be totally on Sandesh in the defence. 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. However, the central midfield position may be a problem for James as they do not have an Indian name of repute in that crucial area.