The Indian Super League is back, the way we know it. Fans are all set to return to the stadiums to get behind the teams they support after being denied the matchday experience for the last two seasons due to COVID-19 restrictions.
It is the ninth season of the ISL that will kick off on Friday and it is a familiar meeting that will set the ball rolling: Kerala Blasters taking on a team from Kolkata. In six of the last eight seasons, it is the Kerala Blasters who have played the first match of the season and in the last five seasons, their opponents were Kolkata giants ATK (Mohun Bagan).
That trend is set to continue for the sixth season in a row. But this time, it is ATK's arch-rivals East Bengal who will take on Kerala Blasters in the season opener at the iconic Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi on Friday. The match will kick-off at 7.30pm.
The Blasters are the favourites as they were the losing finalists last season. Besides, Ivan Vukomanovic's Blasters will be at home. Meanwhile, East Bengal had finished at the bottom of the 11-team points table with just one win last season. East Bengal, now coached by former Indian team manager Stephen Constantine, are the underdogs, at least on paper.
Blasters' good home record
In the last two seasons, when the league was held in Goa, Kerala Blasters started their campaigns with defeats. However, with the return of the home-away format, it is interesting to see that the Blasters have a solid first-match record on the home turf - JNI, Kochi.
In the three of their season openers that the Blasters played in Kochi, they won two and drew a third. In 2015, the Blasters defeated NorthEast United 3-1 in Kochi in their first match. In 2017, it was a goalless draw between Kerala Blasters and ATK in Kochi that kicked off the season. However, the Blasters secured a 2-1 win against ATK when the season opener was held in Kochi in 2019.
Players to watch out for
Main man: Adrian Luna was the Blasters' go-to guy last season. His six goals and seven assists were so vital to their incredible run that reached the final. The Uruguayan is a huge threat from freekicks too.
Other notable players: Rahul KP, Sahal Abdul Samad, Harmanjot Khabra
Trump card: Ivan Kaliuzhnyi. The Ukrainian attacker is a new recruit. The Blasters fans are eager to see how he combines with playmaker Luna. He is expected to be an asset to the Blastes with his height and late runs into the box.
Main man: Cleiton Silva brings firepower to the visitors side. He is a new recruit of Constantine but the Brazilian brings ISL experience having featured for Bengaluru FC.
Other notable players: Souvik Chakrabarti, Alex Lima, Ivan Gonzalez
Trump card: VP Suhair. He is the only Keralite in the East Bengal squad. He is a hard-working striker who is capable of playing in multiple attacking positions. Suhair's familiarity with the Kerala crowd will also give him the confidence to try and hurt the home side.
No pressure, only pleasure of playing: Kerala coach
Kerala Blasters reached the final last season and lost to Hyderabad on penalties. It was the third time that Kerala Blasters had played in a final and not won. However, Ivan Vukomanovic's Yellow Brigade have retained the majority of the squad and is regarded as one of the favourites this time. The Blasters' head coach has urged his players to stay humble and work hard.
"Nobody expected us to reach the finals (last season) especially after we had such a dry period of matches without any huge results," Vukomanovic said. The Serbian said his players have adapted to his style. "Now, we have consistency in the work.. For us, there is no pressure, there is always a pleasure because the players and we are doing something that we love, so when you have this kind of atmosphere and situation, you have a positive mindset and nice things tend to happen. We believe in our objectives, we believe in our ideas, and we will see where it takes us."
We've come to win: East Bengal head coach
East Bengal had a disastrous campaign last season. They finished rock bottom with just one win from 20 matches. Their new head coach Stephen Constantine is confident that his side will bounce back.
"We are not the finished article but haven't come to lose the game on Friday and I haven't come to East Bengal FC to finish in the last place. So, I will do everything I can to make it work," said Constantine.
Constantine was the head coach of the Indian national men's team for years and is familiar with the fans. And he is not worried about the Blasters' supporters. "Hopefully, we can keep the crowd quiet but that will depend on how we play and what the score is. So we try to control what we can control."