The league opener on Friday between these two sides will be the first of several matches to be played behind closed doors.

After what seems to have been the wait of an eternity, the seventh edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) is finally here, with only a few more hours remaining to the kick-start of the proceedings, which promises to be an exciting season ahead. Needless to say, the opening match between Kerala Blasters and ATK Mohun Bagan looks like the perfect way to start the season, with both teams locking horns against each other at GMC Stadium in Bambolim, Goa from 7:30 pm on November 20.

First things first, it sure needs to mentioned as to how different the upcoming 2020-21 ISL season will be, compared to all the previous seasons. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that is yet to slow down has caused the entire competition to be held behind closed doors, in a secure bio-bubble in the state of Goa for the first time since its inception in 2014. This, in turn, remains the biggest talking point of the season as of now, and the upcoming weeks are expected to unravel finer details on how well the different clubs have managed to embrace what is being popularly referred to as the new normal, since the beginning of the pandemic.

Ahead of the opening game, both Kerala Blasters and ATK Mohun Bagan look strong on paper – having made several new signings while also retaining a flurry of their players from the last season. Without further ado, let’s take a closer look into the various aspect of both teams ahead of the game on November 20.

The Stakes

Kerala Blasters

For a club that started so well in the ISL – reaching two finals in the first three seasons – the recent history of Kerala Blasters is not even close to impressive. In the past three years, the club failed to qualify for the play-offs, having finished outside of the top four in all those occasions. In a bid to put an end to this miserable run, the Yellow Army executed a complete overhaul of their system in the summer, both in the squad and across various levels of the management hierarchy.

Watch: KBFC head coach Kibu Vicuna speaks ahead of his side’s game agaisnt ATKMB

The club roped in Karolis Skinkys as the new Sporting DIrector – his claim to fame being the role that he played at Lithuanian club FK Suduva en-route to their domestic league triumph and UEFA Champions League qualification – and appointed Kibu Vicuna as the new head coach, following his I-League title-winning run with Mohun Bagan in 2019-20. They also parted ways with as many as 21 players, while 16 new players joined them. Only Sergio Cidoncha remains from last season’s list of foreign signings, and he has been joined by six new overseas stars.

All of the above gives the impression that Kerala Blasters want to leave no stone unturned as they attempt to go all out and take a shot at winning the ISL title this season. While they are strong contenders for the top four on paper as of now, any further observation can be made only after their campaign begins.

ATK Mohun Bagan

As the name suggests, ATK Mohun Bagan is an amalgamation of two clubs ATK and Mohun Bagan – and that pretty much says everything about the stature of the new club. ATK won the ISL last season, while Mohun Bagan went on to win the I-League.

Watch: ATKMB head coach Antonio Lopez Habas speaks ahead of his side’s game against KBFC

ATKMB have many of both ATK’s and Mohun Bagan’s best players from the 2019-20 season in Roy Krishna, David Williams, Edu Garcia, Prabir Das, Sk Sahil and so on – and when the likes of Tiri, Subhasish Bose and Sandesh Jhingan among others join them, one can’t help but wonder if there are any ways to stop them. The Mariners are being regarded as title contenders by fans and pundits alike, and it is not surprising at all.

This season, ATK Mohun Bagan will be keen to win the ISL and remind their fans that the merger was neither a fluke nor an incorrect decision. They surely have the firepower to get there, and will be raring to go on their way right from the season opener against Blasters.

Team News

Kerala Blasters will be coming in fresh from their 3-1 win against Jamshedpur FC in their final pre-season game on November 14. While Kibu Vicuna will only have some obvious choices to make in terms of their starting XI and bench against ATKMB, it remains to be seen whether Facundo Pereyra and Jordan Murray will get the green signal to take part in the game.

Both players completed their mandatory 14-day quarantine only on November 17, and they may not have had adequate training yet. Hence, it would not be surprising if Vicuna benches them or leaves them out of the squad for the game against the Green and Maroon.

Meanwhile, it is being understood that ATKMB may have a few injury issues ahead of the game against KBFC. For this very reason, they did not play what was supposed to be their final pre-season game against FC Goa, and boss Antonio Lopez Habas will have some pretty tough decisions to make ahead of the upcoming match.

ALSO READ: Players should be ready for game against ATK Mohun Bagan, says Kibu Vicuna

Head-to-Head

On paper, this will be the first time that the two sides will be going head-to-head, considering how ATK Mohun Bagan are a new entity. However, Kerala Blasters have faced ATK 14 times in the earlier seasons, winning four and losing four while the remaining six matches ended as drawn encounters.

Watch: Kerala Blasters defeated ATK by a single goal in the last time they met

In the 2019-20 season, Kerala Blasters faced ATK twice, and managed to taste victory on both occasions. The last time these two sides met was in January 12, 2020 when Halicharan Narzary scored the winner for the southerners against ATK.

Man To Watch

Gary Hooper (Kerala Blasters)

The English forward is one of the most dangerous Kerala Blasters players this season. He arrived this summer with the claim of having one of the best conversion rates in the A-League last season, and has scored over 200 goals across a club career spanning 500 matches. The 32-year-old also scored two goals in the pre-season – one each against East Bengal and Jamshedpur FC respectively – and it sure seems that he has brought in his shooting boots for the first of hopefully many seasons at the Kochi-based club.

Roy Krishna (ATK Mohun Bagan)

Roy Krishna was the joint-highest scorer in the ISL in the 2019-20 season

Roy Krishna needs no description for the fans of Indian football. Anyone who followed the 2019-20 ISL will be more than aware of what he is capable of – with 15 goals, six assists and 28 chances created in just 21 matches. He also topped the Golden Boot charts with Nerijus Valsksis and proved that if you give him the slightest of opportunities, he will score with great ease. The 33-year-old Fijian’s partnership with David Williams was also well-appreciated last season.

Probable Lineups

Kerala Blasters (4-2-3-1)

Albino Gomes (GK); Nishu Kumar, Bakary Kone, Costa Nhamoinesu, Jessel Carneiro; Vicente Gomez, Sergio Cidoncha; Sahal Abdul Samad, Rahul KP, Nongdamba Naorem; Gary Hooper

ATK Mohun Bagan (4-4-2)

Arindam (GK); Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Tiri, Subhasish Bose; Carl McHugh, Javi Hernandez, Prabir Das, Michael Soosairaj; David Williams, Roy Krishna

ALSO READ: Our work is to get three points and get the wins every game, says Antonio Habas

Did You Know?

  • Kerala Blasters finished at seventh place in the 2019-20 ISL league stage, with just four wins from 18 matches (seven draws, 19 points).
  • Kerala Blasters reached the ISL final on two occasions (2014 and 2016), losing to ATK both times.
  • Among the current set of ATKMB players, only Carl McHugh has managed to score a goal against KBFC.
  • ATKMB defender Sandesh Jhingan holds the record for most ISL appearances for KBFC (76 matches across five seasons).
  • ATK finished second in the 2019-20 ISL league stage with ten wins from 18 matches (four draws, 34 points), before beating Bengaluru FC in the semi-finals and Chennaiyin FC in the final to lift their third title.

Telecast

The match between KBFC and ATKMB is set to be telecast live on Star Sports 1 SD & HD, Star Sports 2 SD & HD (English), Star Sports Hindi 1 SD & HD, Star Sports 3, Star Gold 2 (Hindi), Asianet Plus, Asianet Movies (Malayalam), and Star Sports regional channels (in Bangla, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Marathi). It will also be streamed live on Disney+ Hotstar VIP and Jio TV.

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