The first two of ATK’s three ISL titles came at the expense of Kerala Blasters. Things have changed for both teams since then. ATK are now known as ATK Mohun Bagan following last year’s much-hyped merger between the two clubs. However, when Antonio Lopez Habas – who guided the Kolkata side to their first crown in the inaugural edition of the league – will take his troops to kick-start the ISL-8, his team will see in Kerala Blasters an “unknown” rival.
While ATK Mohun Bagan have retained the core of the last season’s side, strengthened further with the acquisitions of Joni Kauko and Hugo Boumous, Kerala Blasters are a much-revamped entity with a new coach in Serbian Ivan Vukomanovic and fresh defensive and attacking set-up.
“We respect Kerala Blasters as opponents. We don’t have much information as they have a new coach and new players. We have to analyse them individually. But my philosophy is that we’ll think 80 per cent about my team and 20 per cent about the opponent, although we respect Kerala very much,” Habas said in a media interaction on Thursday.
Having faltered in the ISL-7 final, Habas’ team, however, is also resuming its fresh shot at glory against the background of their humiliating exit from the AFC Cup when they lost to Uzbekistan’s FC Nasaf 6-0 in the semifinal playoff. Back home and facing a familiar terrain, Habas and Co. though are bracing for a different challenge, first to prove that the setback against Nasaf was a one-off incident and more importantly that his players are ready to go the distance this time. No wonder, the Spanish coach stressed on the need of growing “as a team” over the next few months. “I think the key factor is that we have to build a team with an idea to grow as a group. There is the quality, the energy for winning. We have to show our quality on the pitch too and it also depends on the players you have,” Habas said.
As Habas has decided to keep his cards close to his chest, it would be interesting to see whether Boumous gets a start and how the defence stands up to the challenge from the likes of the Spanish-speaking striking duo Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Alvaro Vazquez.
Kerala Blasters coach Vukomanovic stressed that his team would not be bogged down by their poor record against ATK Mohun Bagan. “In football, the good thing is that you can have a new game every three days. So in this case, there is a new chapter, there is a new game. So all the history is behind us,” the Serbian said on the match-eve.
Kerala Blasters conceded the second-highest number of goals last season, prompting the management to bolster the backline by bringing Marko Leskovic former Chennaiyin defender Enes Sipovic and Sanjeev Stalin, who promises to be an Indian star in the making. Harmanjyot Singh Khabra’s arrival will also give Vukomanovic flexibility in defensive organization.
ATK Mohun Bagan have a settled attacking look in Roy Krishna, David William and Manvir Singh. They will again be ready to destroy the rival defence. And it remains to be seen how Kerala’s ‘unknown factor’ gives the usual tale a whole new different spin.