Kochi: For a league still in infancy, Kerala Blasters and ATK have managed to forge quite a rivalry. The fact that they have contested two of the three Indian Super League titles, and almost always made it a tight affair, offers epic proportions to their latest meeting that will kick off the fourth season, at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here on Friday.
Even though Kerala head coach Rene Meulensteen is delighted to begin the campaign at home he has warned players to not get carried away by the occasion. His counterpart, Teddy Sheri-ngham, has urged the reigning champions to be prepared for a “mouthwatering” clash.
Emotions are expected to run high as the sides face-off at the same venue that witnessed a shootout last December to decide the 2016 champion. ATK’s 4-3 win on penalties after a 1-1 stalemate helped them reclaim the title while Kerala were denied a second time at the final hurdle.
Interestingly all eight previous matches were decided by one-goal margins and while Kerala’s odd success (2-1) came in the first season at home, ATK have come out on top five times and on two other occasions the result was 1-1.
However, both managers have played down the possibility of past seasons having a bearing on the match at hand. “The past is past … you basically start from scratch,” Meulensteen said. With practically no intel on the opposition’s style of play Sheringham has claimed that he had to prepare by watching “footage of Rene’s matches as a manager”.
Meanwhile, the return of new captain Sandesh Jhinghan from India’s 2-2 draw against Myanmar in the Asian Cup qualifier has lifted spirits in the Kerala camp. Provided marquee star striker Dimitar Berbatov and his defender Wes Brown are match-fit, Meulensteen will have a fully fit squad at his disposal. The same cannot be said about ATK, who will miss the services of marquee striker Robbie Keane, out for three weeks with an Achilles injury, and Jayesh Rane.