In the past, Kerala Blasters versus Bengaluru FC was a tie worthy of a banter. The Twitter (X) battles between the opposing fans were arguably more intense than the actual meetings on a pitch.
Then on the night of March 3, 2023, Bengaluru's talisman, Sunil Chhetri (briefly) stood over a freekick in extra time of their playoff tie. Nothing would be the same after that.
Chhetri scored a contentious goal – arguably the most disputed in ISL's (Indian Super League) brief history – following which, Blasters' head coach, Ivan Vukomanovic, initiated a walkout. The Blasters forfeited the game and invited a hefty fine from the All India Football Federation. Their coach Vukomanovic was served a ten-game ban for the transgression.
In the context, when the two sides meet again, at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi on Thursday, it will no doubt be the grandest of contests to set a season rolling, certainly one befitting the opener of the tenth season of ISL.
With Vukomanovic still serving the ban, his assistant Frank Dauwen will manage the Blasters from the dugout. He will hope to add points to the table before Vukomanovic returns to take the Blasters wagon forward in search of their elusive ISL title.
Bengaluru will once again line up under Simon Grayson, who had transformed the Blues into title contenders since New Year, and almost delivered them a second ISL trophy, losing the final in shootout to ATK Mohun Bagan.
Dauwen chose to call it just another game. Since joining the Blasters in August 2022, the Belgian hasn't had a chance to call the shots from the dugout. Now that he has his moment, he most certainly doesn't want to dampen it with ripostes. “What's happened in the past is over, now we start a new season,” Dauwen said in his brief pre-match presser.
Grayson is aware of what to expect from the rival fans and wants his players to be ready for it. “As a footballer, you want to play in these big games and you want to challenge yourself in front of a hostile atmosphere and that's what I'm expecting tomorrow,” said the Bengaluru coach.
Hostile it would be as the venue is almost sold out. But the Blasters fans would miss the opportunity to continue their rant at Chhetri, whom they have branded as the villain of the playoff saga. He is away with the national team for Asian Games.
Two Blasters players, Rahul KP and Bryce Miranda, are also part of the Indian squad and missing for the ISL opener. Ishan Pandita and Saurav Mandal haven't recovered from injuries so Dauwen will have to do with the other Indians at his disposal.
The experienced Pritam Kotal and Prabir Das should start and the Blasters' fans expect a lot from their other new recruits Daisuke Sakai and Kwame Peprah. Hitman Dimitrios Diamantakos and playmaker and skipper, Adrian Luna are available for the Blasters.
For Bengaluru, Curtis Main is most certainly the main man in attack and he should pair up with Siva Sakthi. The match is scheduled to kickoff at 8pm.