Last time when both these sides met in the season opener it was a stalemate in Kochi.
The Indian Super League season is all set to kick-off with a repeat of the ISL 3 final. ATK take on Kerala Blasters in the opener at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on Saturday. Prior to the big bang, both the coaches spoke to the press in their first pre-match press conference of the season.
Steve Coppell (ATK)
The ATK head coach shook off talk about a draw being sufficient tomorrow
ATK’s new gaffer Steve Coppell was the first one to speak to the press and seemed confident of his side’s preparation coming into the new season. He was asked about the rivalry shared between ATK and Kerala over the years and stated, “Everybody feels the same at this stage. The day before the season starts, you hope you’re ready. But, until you play you don’t know if you are ready. We’re looking forward to the game. I think it’ll be a great atmosphere and I hope everyone will enjoy the game. After that, we’ll start judging ourselves as a team.”
When he was asked of every player’s availability tomorrow, “We’re expecting Kalu to arrive any moment now. We hope he makes it for tomorrow’s game,” he said. Explaining his formation to start the season he said, “We hope to be as strong as possible going forward. It’s our responsibility as the home team to take the game to the opposition. We would like to attack as much as we can.”
The former Kerala Blasters gaffer was asked about ATK’s dominance over Kerala and said. “I don’t think the past will have any influence on the result tomorrow. It’s a brand new season. Both sides are very optimistic. I think all the teams at the moment want to start brightly. Everyone can’t wait to get started.”
Coppell shook off talk about a draw being sufficient enough tomorrow and said, “We have to go into every game to try and win it. At this moment, we are desperate to open our campaign with a win. We will be playing for all three points.”
The Englishman was also asked about how much he’ll use the local, Bengali players for ATK and said, “I hope quite a few Bengali players can feature this season. They bring an extra motivation with them because of their pride for the city.”
Coppell was happy with Komal Thatal
He added, “When I managed Bengalis for Jamshedpur last season, they wanted to come back to Kolkata because of their pride. Every Bengali player has trained very hard and I think the Bengali players will be pushing harder for a spot. They want to play in front of their own fans and have greater motivation to perform well.”
Coppell also spoke on Eugeneson Lyngdoh’s availability for the first game and said, “Eugene had an unfortunate injury last year in the JFC game. An ACL reconstruction is a significant surgery for a footballer. He’s come back very well and is fine physically. But mentally, there is a little bit of doubt in his mind. He’s trained well and played games in Spain when we played. He’s very close to being involved from the start of the season.”
He also spoke on the impact made by Sanjoy Sen for ATK and said, “Sanjoy has been invaluable in the construction of the squad. They’ve used his experience to sign the vast majority of the players in the squad. Speaking to him throughout the pre-season, being aware of his thought process and reasons for his selections.
“We’re heavily dependent on him in the short term. There are certain players I don’t know and his expertise is invaluable in helping me. I have a great relationship with him.” he added.
Finally, Coppell spoke about ATK’s possible advantage in starting their season with two home games and stated, “I think I’ll tell you after two games. We couldn’t ask for anything better to start our season. We have two home games and it’s because of Kolkata being our home, it’s down to us to make our home ground into a fortress. Over the years, you’ll find that playing at home isn’t a massive advantage in the ISL. But, in terms of convenience, feeling comfortable, it’s good that we’re at home.”
David James (Kerala Blasters)
James was vocal in speaking about Kerala’s dedication despite the difficult period they went through with the recent floods
David James was in a happy mood prior to the crunch opening game. He was asked about his involvement in creating the team this season and said, “I was heavily involved in making the team this season. I saw hours and hours of footage and saw into hundreds of players. ATK have brought in players with ISL experience and the players have done well in the ISL, which is good for them. Our model was based on a longer strategy and we signed players on three-year contracts.”
“I am not only planning to win the ISL this season, but looking into the future of Kerala Blasters. We’ve got the youngest side in the ISL and the model has to fit across the board. We’ve brought in young foreign talent who will improve and young talent who have come through the system. We’ve got an interesting strategy and it’ll be interesting to see who does what.”
James was unfazed by his poor record against ATK as he said,“ I’m not sure that my record is too bad against ATK. I think I’m the only manager to have beaten them for Kerala Blasters. I think the rivalry between us on many different levels is one we cherish. They might have a slight upper hand but we’re looking forward to changing that.”
The Englishman also spoke about his recruitment policy this season and said, “When looking at the recruitment strategy of KBFC, Sandesh was pivotal to planning our future. Sandesh is the club captain and retains that captaincy as he leads by example. He always conducts in a manner that I expect my players to conduct themselves. There’s a reason he’s with me today here.”
James also clarified that Dheeraj will need to train hard to be a starter
When queried on whether or not Kerala will go all our for a win tomorrow he said, “The beauty of the ISL because of the system is things can change. Year 1 didn’t start too well for us when we were both playing. Had it not been for the work of Sandip Nandy and Sushant, we wouldn’t have gotten into the final then. Bengaluru was the most consistent team in the ISL last season, but them failing on one hurdle allowed Chennaiyin to win.
“We appreciate the ISL to be a long season and there will be players who don’t feature in the game tomorrow to play sometime as the season we win. We want to win tomorrow, we want to do everything right, but the season isn’t decided on tomorrow’s result.” he further explained.
Highlights: ATK 2-2 Kerala Blasters
James also spoke on Sachin Tendulkar’s departure and said, “He’s one of the most wonderful men I’ve met in sports. When I was asked to be KB manager, we sat down and had a very honest conversation about sports and human factors along with football. His name will always be associated with Kerala Blasters because “Master Blaster” is his nickname. A football club will always survive regardless of key individuals leaving. The legacy he leaves behind is amazing.”
The former shot-stopper spoke about his expectations from young prodigy Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem this season and said, “Dheeraj needs to look up to the likes of Sandesh to learn about the game. My expectations for him is the same as for any other player. There’s no guarantee that he will start this season. There’s no guarantee he’ll ever start for KBFC under me.”
“He’ll need to train hard and impress me in training before he gets to play for us. He has proved himself as a capable goalkeeper because of his experience, but I expect a lot from him this season. If he starts matches, then he’ll be the most deserving one to earn the spot,” he added.
James was also vocal in speaking about Kerala’s dedication despite the difficult period they went through with the recent floods and said, “The one thing I’ve fallen in love with since my first trip to India is the spirit of people in Kerala. The fans are important and their contributions towards the efforts are great. It’s a difficult thing to say that we’ll try harder, but we’re very conscientious of what happened. The people of Kerala went through a very difficult time and we’ll keep them in our thoughts when we play tomorrow. I’ve recruited players who will give their 100% to the Kerala Blasters and not only to Kerala.”
ATK have a few defensive issues of their own heading into the new season. Right-back Prabir Das is out with a knee injury, while Arnab Mondal is also expected to miss the opening game. But, Andre Bikey could make it for the game if he recovers tomorrow. Coppell spoke about the injuries and said, “Our injury concerns are Prabir (Das), who has a long-standing injury. Arnab(Mondal) has a ligament strain, but Andre Bikey is very close to being fit. We’ll take a call on him tomorrow morning.”
Kerala Blasters have no serious injuries and go into the season with a fully fit unit. However, French defender Cyril Kali still hasn’t recovered fully and is a slight doubt for the match.
ATK: Debjit, Khongjee, Bikey, Johnson, Ralte, Lyngdoh, Halder, Faiaz, Lanzarote, Santos, Uche.
Kerala Blasters: Dheeraj, Lalruatthara, Jhingan, Lakic-Pesic, Haokip, Kizito, Krcmarevic, Prasanth, Slavisa, Narzary, Matej.
Did You Know?
These two teams have contested two finals in the ISL’s four seasons so far.
They also met in the opening fixture of last season which was played in Kochi.
ATK gaffer Steve Coppell was also the head coach of Kerala Blasters earlier. He managed them in the 2016-17 season, when they reached the final at home, but lost to ATK.
The match will take place tomorrow at 7:30 PM, at the Salt Lake Stadium. On television, the match will be live on Star Sports. Meanwhile, it will also be streamed on Hotstar and Jio TV.