The Malabarians are currently on top of Group D after beating ATKMB in the previous match.

Gokulam Kerala will look to compound on their impressive start to the AFC Cup 2022 group stages when they face Maziya S&RC at the Salt Lake Stadium on Saturday. Vincenzo Alberto Annese’s side are leading the group table after a dominant win over ATK Mohun Bagan and can take one step closer to the knockout stages by defeating Maziya.

Despite the strong start, Gokulam Kerala boss Vincenzo Annese is keeping himself grounded. Ahead of their match against Maziyra S&RC, the GKFC head coach shared his thoughts on the opponents and the game ahead.

Thoughts on Maziya S&RC

Vincenzo Annese called for his side to remain focused for the entirety of 90 minutes to affect a result against Maziya. He also rued the necessity of playing their second match within 72 hours of the game against ATK Mohun Bagan.

“When we play in this kind of a cup competition, I think facing a team like Maziya S&RC can be a great challenge. They had a team full of national team players and it won’t be easy to defeat them. We studied their last game against Bashundhara Kings. They have quality in the middle, are based on possession and have players who can be making stinging runs and can really try to give a lot of problems to our backline,” said the Gokulam Kerala boss.

“In this competition, I know we need to be careful for the entirety of 90 minutes because we need to keep our concentration high. We are playing 72 hours after the last game and the level of physical and mental concentration will be impacted. Players need to be focused as much in defense as in attack. We need to stick to our style which we have tried to improve in the last few years.

“It’ll be a tough game. But we believe in ourselves and we have to see what happens tomorrow. Some situations can decide the game, be it some set-pieces, some misplaced passes, or misunderstandings. We need to have the confidence of taking the passes and not be afraid. If we are focused on our job, we will do good tomorrow,” he added.

Bio-bubble exhausting mentally?

The bio-bubble has made things strenuous for certain teams, including ATK Mohun Bagan manager Juan Ferrando claiming it might be affecting his side. However, Vincenzo Annese doesn’t believe anything like that, as he said: “I won’t try to find excuses about this. The players are probably more stressed than me, but I don’t know what is the feeling of the bio-bubble. We are in one of the best hotels in Kolkata, the guests are made to feel so comfortable. They enjoy staying together. I personally feel this way. I’m more emotional than them because they love to stay together.

“We can go out to watch a movie together or for an outing. We have a group with a crazy variety of personality in the team and for us the bio-bubble isn’t important and can’t impact our performance. It can only help us add more focus to the team. You can go outside to take your mind in a different way, but we love to stay together,” he added.

If Gokulam Kerala are now favourites to win group?

When asked about whether Gokulam Kerala are the face of AFC Cup for Indian football, the gaffer said: “I believe that tomorrow needs to win the game. I think it’ll be amazing if Gokulam Kerala can win this group. In my two years at Gokulam, we have developed the mentality to be consistent, play attacking football. But in the last many years I haven’t seen this football. I just want to see that we play a different style, we develop a different style of football. We love to attack, we love to score goals. In the two years at Gokulam, we have had the top scorers in both seasons.

“This year to score four goals against a team like ATKMB, a team that has an amazing budget, a historical background and amazing players – to score four goals and create more chances is not for everybody. I want to be more clear to everybody, because tomorrow we face a strong opponent.

“We need to do our best and try to win. I hope tomorrow the people of Kolkata support us. Because I would support ATK Mohun Bagan in a league against a Bangladeshi side. At the same time, we need support for Gokulam Kerala tomorrow. We represent India right now and it will be great if an Indian club can get three points tomorrow,” Vincenzo Annese added.

Players getting big money attraction from other clubs

Vincenzo Annese also revealed that some players in his team are attracting outside offers after the win over ATKMB. He said: “We start our preparations in August and it’s always important for us because we need rest. The players need to stay motivated to win another game throughout the campaign. One problem I faced here, we beat ATK Mohun Bagan and people from all over India started to contact my players to say ‘hey you are the best’ and also same to me, fans told me that they want me as the national team manager!

“But I don’t focus on this stuff and I speak normally, I don’t talk about other things and I always tell my players to do the best, to not to think about outside stuff, because it doesn’t matter about ISL – you can even make a big name by playing in the I-League.

“The guys are attracted to big money, but I try to put that stuff out of their minds as it’s important to focus on our current job. Of course, the Indian players will get attracted more often by the ISL teams because of the rules. For example, Fletcher is a Jamaican national team star. He is fast, and left-footed and it’s normal he might get requests from some club. But tomorrow, the game can change their reputation forever. So we have to put our focus on that,” he explained.

Difference in quality between ISL and I-League

Further speaking on whether there is any difference in quality between I-League and ISL teams, he said: “I spoke about this the other day and have given my opinion about his. But to give an example, if you watch the last two Super Cup qualifications, you can watch the qualifications and it was more the case of the I-League passing the group stages and not the ISL teams. I believe the quality is equal. I’m not afraid to say this.

“There is a lot of quality in the I-League teams, with quality coaches, with quality players that can play in the national team and can be able to beat premier ISL teams. That is my opinion on it. If you believe that or not is your choice.”

Will he stay at Gokulam Kerala?

Vincenzo Annese also gave an interesting answer when asked about whether he’ll stay at Gokulam Kerala next season. He said:  “When I came to this club, I spoke to the president and agreed to a contract for one year. Then we became champions and the president convinced me to stay for one more year. I told them I would stay and the major reason why I stayed was that I wanted to help the quality of football here. Wanted to show some different stuff about Indian football.

“I watched the other coaches before me and the way that football in India is played. There is a lot of potential in India and I believe I can help bring change to some aspects, as I believe I have already. But in my second year”

“I was also able to travel to parts of India like Kashmir and Goa. Of course, I have had requests to stay after the ATKMB win. I like Indian hospitality and respect. The players have so much respect for foreign coaches and players. But also the foreigner coaches like Garcia (physio) has so much love.

“The hospitality the Indian people give is not there many other countries provide. I would love to stay here in the future. We’ll see about whether I stay in Gokulam, I have spoken with them about the project and plans. For now, I am at Gokulam and everyone can be assured that I only think about their success for now,” he added.

Can GKFC top Group D?

When asked about how many points he believes Gokulam will need to win the group, the Italian gaffer said: “I still don’t know about that. I honestly think that we just need to focus on winning tomorrow. We play for three points all the time. It’s not easy to recover mentally for games with such little time. In 90 minutes everything will happen, depending on how the referee can officiate and the way we can act at an international level.

“We can see in the last game, that in the first 20 minutes, Gokulam were afraid about ATKMB but also afraid that we are playing on the international stages. The players need to quickly adapt to play at such a high level. The games are faster here, the referees opt to be more flexible with giving advantages instead of fouls. In the I-league, the referees stopped the game all the game.

“Here the referees hardly stop and continue the game. There are different ways to see football here. It’s the same comparison as the refereeing in Serie A being one way, but completely different in the Champions League. The games never stop there too, there’s more intensity to it. There are a lot of tactical differences to the AFC Cup games too. It will not be easy for us, but it won’t be easy for Maziya either tomorrow,” he added.

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