Former champions ATK and two-time runners-up Kerala Blasters FC will look to renew their rivalry when they face-off in the opening match of the Indian Super League (ISL) football tournament here on Saturday.
The fifth season of ISL will witness high-octane action as 10 elite teams compete for the coveted title. The I-League 2017-18 which concluded in March was the last competitive football tournament in the country.
The ISL-V is expected to be the longest, spanning over six months with three breaks — two FIFA windows (in October and November) and one for India’s preparatory camp for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
Both ATK and Kerala struggled to hit the ground running last season, with ATK faring worse than the two, finishing a nightmarish nine out of 10 teams and saw three coaches at the helm.
The Kochi-based side also endured a poor start last season that saw the removal of coach Rene Muelensteen and former England goalkeeper David James being handed the baton.
There were some glimpses of resurgence under their former marquee player but it was a little too late to make the playoffs, as they ended up at sixth.
Both the teams have a healthy rivalry with ATK in a 5-1 win-loss record from 10 exchanges, including two in the 2014 and 2016 finals.
Former Kerala Blasters FC coach Steve Coppell, who has a consistent track record in the ISL, will now sit in the hot seat of ATK.
As Kerala coach, Coppell’s team lost to ATK in the penalties in the 2016 final. Under him, debutants Jamshedpur FC missed out on a play-off spot by a whisker last season.
“I am eagerly waiting for the start of the tournament. We have had a fruitful preseason in Spain where we got our chance to test all our players and now it is time to prove our mettle on the stage that matters,” Coppell said.
ATK have made their intentions clear by roping in several big names, both Indian and overseas, to bolster their squad.
Six of their seven foreign players have prior experience of playing in the ISL including former Bengaluru FC defender John Johnson.
Captain Manuel Lanzarote was one of the best playmakers in the league last season for FC Goa clocking well over 1500 minutes with 13 goals and six assists.
The attacking lineup will have Nigerian Kalu Uche, who was the third highest goal scorer in ISL last year and Brazilian Everton Santos.
ATK have retained 30-year-old English centre back John Johnson, who has a good understanding of Indian conditions having spent five seasons at Bengaluru FC before switching to ATK in 2017.
Of the 19 Indians in the squad, ATK have retained six from the fourth season — Debjit Majumdar, Prabir Das, Eugenson Lyngdoh, Jayesh Rane, Komal Thatal and Hitesh Sharma.
Among the Indians, all eyes will be on Indian star midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh who will be returning to action after his knee injury in December last year.
Coppell will also look forward to the inputs from his deputy Sanjoy Sen, a former I-League winning Mohun Bagan coach.
ATK had a fruitful preseason in Spain and won two out of their three practice matches.
For the yellow brigade from Kerala, this will be the first season for the team without their star owner Sachin Tendulkar.
The cricket legend has sold off his 20 per cent stakes in the team and they will seek a fresh identity in their bid for the elusive title.
Kerala boast of a strong defence with foreigner duo of Cyril Kali and Nemanja Lakic-Pesic along with national team’s Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika in the team and it will be an interesting battle with ATK’s star attacking line-up.
Kerala have also signed the likes of Zakeer Mundampara, Halicharan Narzary and Seiminlen Doungel who will provide width and pace to the team while going forward this season.
The central midfield position, on the other hand, may be a cause of concern for James as they do not have an Indian name of repute in that crucial area.
The spotlight of the fifth season will be on Jamshedpur who have signed the Socceroos legend Tim Cahill.
The 38-year-old Australian record goalscorer has announced his international retirement after playing in Russia World Cup this year but is not ready to hang up his boots completely just yet.
“With three Asian Cup and four World Cup appearances, I would like to contribute on the park as much as off it,” Cahill, who scored 50 goals for Australia in a career spanning 14 years, said.
“I take great pride in playing and training. I would look to add more value than just be a marquee signing.”
Other notable names include former Portuguese international Paulo Machado who will be playing for Mumbai City FC and Venezuelan striker Miku, playing his second season for Bengaluru FC.