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KB vs ATK: Blasters Hoping Berba Magic Drowns ATK Demons

Thursday, 16 November 2017|Vineeth Krishnan

When the glitz and glamour of the ISL opening ceremony recede on Friday, a new season of what is unofficially India's top football league will kick off right where the last ended, in front of the raucous cauldron that is the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kochi. For the hosts Kerala Blasters and their fabled 'manjappada' mass of fans, the expectation would be of a night to revel and rejoice even after the final whistle, in stark contrast to the doom and gloom that followed a heartbreaking loss to the same opponents in the final, almost exactly 11 months before.

Looking to quieten the fans again would be defending ISL champions Amar Tomar Kolkata (ATK), who come into the game riding a six-game unbeaten streak against the hosts. However, with a new coach, a vastly different set of players, and given injuries to key stars including the former English Premier League star Robbie Keane, it could prove a tough ask for Teddy Sheringham's men. With Rene Meulensteen, a tactician renowned for his attacking style of play in the other dugout, it is beyond question that both teams will be gunning for their first 'W' of the season.

Home to the two traditional power-bases of Indian football, the rivalry between Kerala and Kolkata goes back decades before the ISL was even thought of. However, with ATK beating the Blasters in two out of the three ISL finals so far, the budding animosity between these franchises in the age of social media is adding new flavour to the curry pot.

ATK pinched the two finals in the cruelest of fashions for Blasters' fans, first with an injury-time goal and last year in the lottery of a penalty shootout. In this first meeting of ISL-4, Kerala will be hopeful of finally getting a leg up on Kolkata and corner bragging rights, at least until the return leg three whole months later. Three points in this game could perhaps be the start of the path for Blasters to finally get their full revenge when this year's final is played at ATK's home in the City of Joy.

The Blasters have the advantage of a fully fit squad. While Sandesh Jhingan, Jackichand Singh and Lalruathara have been away on international duty, they are all fit and raring to go according to Meulensteen. All the focus for the fans as well as the media the day before the game has been understandably centered on former Manchester United stars Dimitar Berbatov and Wes Brown. Meulensteen said he was counting on these experienced professionals to be “the extra factor on the pitch, sometimes when we are in a difficult moment, to calm everybody down, and when we have the ball, to produce that extra flair and create  opportunities for us to win the game.”

The mass following for the Red Devils in Kerala also played a key role in signing these two stars. “I have read a lot about how fanatic they (Kerala fans) are about Manchester United. It was logical for me when I was appointed to see and draw from the context that I have and Brown and Berbatov, I have worked with them for many, many years. They know what sort of coach I am, what sort of style I like to play and most importantly for me was that they were very, very motivated to come here.”

Meanwhile, Sheringham also credited the amazing supporters as a major reason he chose to come to India. “Playing in front of 60,000 in Kerala as an away opponent, it is mouth-watering for a footballer, for a manager, for my players to come to this fantastic stadium and know it is going to be a full house... its what you dream of as a boy, you want to play in front of a lot of fans, you want that excitement, the atmosphere. When you score or do something great, obviously they won't be supporting us but we'll know we're doing great if we can try and keep these amazing fans quiet.”

Still, while he hinted at working out defensive plans to keep Berbatov and co quiet, the former England (and also United) striker promised ATK fans that they will not be setting out the stall in search of a draw, saying emphatically that “we are here to win the game.” Come 8pm on Friday, there will be a full house in JLN stadium and millions across God's own country praying that will not be the case.