Last season’s beaten ISL finalists Kerala Blasters welcome their victors to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to get ISL4 underway this afternoon (1530 CEST).
Both sides have undergone massive changes during the close season and will be barely recognisable to the two sides that competed in the 2016 ISL final which ATK, then Atletico de Kolkata, won on penalties.
Kerala Blasters appointed Dutchman Rene Muelensteen as their Head Coach and, supported by a knowledgeable backroom team, have assembled a side mixed with homegrown strength and European experience in Dimitar Berbatov and Wes Brown.
ATK are now led by the former England international Teddy Sheringham, who has only one previous managerial role behind him in a short spell at Stevenage Borough in England’s League Two. His main man will be Robbie Keane, although the former Irish international and record goalscorer will be missing from today’s fixture due to an Achilles injury picked up in Dubai.
Sheringham said in yesterday’s press conference that the first aim was to “silence the Kerala fans” who are known to be some of the most passionate in the ISL.
“It’s a fantastic fixture to open the ISL with. When people talked to me about coming to India, they mentioned about the weather and the fans. It’s great for my players to come to this (Jawaharlal Nehru) stadium. It’s what you dream of as a boy. The aim of the game is to keep these (Kerala Blasters) amazing fans quiet”.
Sheringham was also understandably wary of the threat posed by Dimitar Berbatov.
“Yes, they (some foreigners) are past their prime. If you have seen Robbie Keane what he is like in pre-season, he was a great leader for us. I’m sure the Kerala fans will love Berbatov with the skill that he produces. Iain Hume as well, whom I have seen footage of. Sit back and enjoy the match”.
The ATK boss does have his own “star” player up his sleeve, in the absence of Keane.
“Robin Singh is very different from any of the other Indian players that we have. He is very strong. I was sitting alongside him on the flight and for four hours, I had him telling me how good he is. So it was an enjoyable flight!”
It remains to be seen whether Singh can come up with the goods he has promised.
Kerala Blaster’s will have ex-Manchester United UEFA Champions League winner Wes Brown marshalling their defence and he is delighted to be working with Rene Muelensteen once more.
“I know what he needs from me. That’s pretty much simple. He has got the lads together as a group. When he is explaining stuff, it’s completely different. He has got a new squad. And he has got to try and get them to play how he wants them to play. And he does it brilliantly in the training sessions to make it very simple for everyone to understand and his point across on how he wants them to play in different ways in different games,” revealed Brown.
Many might think that Brown has come to India purely for one final payday, but he is clearly excited by the prospect of playing in front of the Kerala fans.
“I always wanted to play abroad. I always remember Mikael Silvestre telling me that he was in India two years ago,” said Brown. “When the gaffer told me he was going take over Kerala Blasters, it was pretty simple really, the fans are some of the best I’ve seen and I’ve not even seen them in real life”.
Muelensteen has a fully fit squad to select from this afternoon and is expected to start with Berbatov playing behind the ISL’s record goalscorer Iain Hume. American Paul Rachubka will start in goal with Wes Brown partnering the Kerala captain Sandesh Jhingan in the middle of the defence. Also watch out for CK Vineeth as his all action style will win him a lot of fans this season.
Sheringham is without Carl Baker in addition to Robbie Keane and is expected to start with a 442 shape. Robin Singh is likely to lead the line alongside Njazi Kuqi. Also watch out for the Brazilian on the left, Zequinha. Eugeneson Lyngdoh is a midfielder who is very pleasing on the eye and will probably be ATK’s main man on set-pieces.
The game should be a fantastic way to kick off the new season. Whether Kerala Blasters will have quickly adapted to the change in approach brought in by Muelensteen and his desire for quick passing, open football remains to be seen. If it gels, they could cause ATK numerous problems, with Dimitar Berbatov believed to be looking in great shape through preseason. Add in Iain Hume and CK Vineeth and the side should promise goals if the new philosophy gels quickly. ATK have injury problems for the opening fixture, meaning their fans will not see their strongest line up in what is possibly the biggest match they will play all season. And, of course, you have to factor in the Kerala crowd.
All in all, and I am not suggesting that Kerala are the team to beat in this season’s ISL, I can see the Blasters getting revenge for their ISL final loss last season.