After a wretched campaign in the previous edition, former champions ATK will renew acquaintances with two-time runners-up Kerala Blasters in the opening match of the Indian Super League (ISL) here at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan on Saturday.
The fifth season of the ISL will see 10 teams compete for the coveted crown and in the season opener ATK’s new coach Steve Coppell will take on his former club Kerala.
The ISL this time 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.
ATK finished ninth last season while Kerala missed out on the semifinal spot by finishing sixth. ATK saw their coach and former Manchester United striker Teddy Sheringham sacked towards the end of their campaign in which they managed to win just four games.
Kerala too saw the removal of coach Rene Muelensteen with former England goalkeeper David James taking over this time.
James tried to steady the ship but it was too little too late as they could only muster 25 points, five adrift of FC Pune City who finished fourth to qualify for the playoffs.
ATK coach Coppell was with Jamshedpur FC last season and the Englishman will use his arsenal to win the coveted trophy this time around.
Asked how he is warming up to the new city, he shared: “It definitely has a different vibe from the other places I’ve been to. I was very fortunate in my first season to be at Kerala and match days were amazing you know, a sea of yellow, but here, you get a sense of a football feeling all week long.
“You know, the people you speak to in the streets, they’re really looking forward to the new season and looking forward to having regular football on their doorsteps again,” he added.
Last season, Coppell made Jamshedpur one of the most defensively resolute sides in the league, an attribute which is a part of his footballing philosophy. But for the new season, the 63-year-old’s plans are slightly different.
“I don’t prioritise it (the defence) to be absolutely honest,” he said. “We just think that it is a part of the team’s preparation. Defence is more about discipline and attacking football is more about creativity and intuition. It’s something you can’t coach. I would be hoping that this season we will be defensively strong, but it’s not something that we have got ourselves to worry about.”
ATK have roped in few big names this time in both Indian and overseas front.
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 midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh who will be returning to action after his knee injury in December last year.
For 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 their ranks.
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.