ATK Kerala Blasters Preview Indian Super League ISL
Will either Kalu Uche (left) or Matej Poplatnik (right) get the decisive goal?

Season five of the ISL begins today! For those of you like me, who can’t get enough of the beautiful game, you’ll be ecstatic to know that we now have a game of football every day for little over a month. That’s one of the beauties about the ISL, the way the league is set up. Yes, you could argue that the end of season playoffs need looking at amongst other things, but let’s take nothing away from the schedulers. Every day from today until the 6th of November we have a game of football in the ISL. Does life get much better than that? I don’t think so.

Enough of me waxing lyrical about what awaits us, let’s investigate this opening game in more detail. Rather aptly, the ISL kicks off in Kolkata, home to two times ISL champions, ATK. in what is the first of six meetings between English head coaches in the league, Steve Coppell’s ATK host David James’ Kerala Blasters in what will undoubtedly be a mouthwatering encounter. What can we expect from the game? That is the million dollar question and one that is quite tough to answer considering it’s the opening day of the season. Nonetheless, I’ll give it my best shot.

All Change For ATK

After the disappointment of last season, ATK were not shy when it came to acting over the course of the summer. Sheringham and Westwood both tried and failed to get results and perhaps the most successful head coach last season in Kolkata was the rookie. That’s right, Robbie Keane. Sadly, even Robbie Keane couldn’t keep his place in the squad as Steve Coppell was brought in to right the wrongs of last season.

No less than TWENTY-ONE new players have joined the club and while you think that would be difficult to plan the season ahead, the majority of the players joined when the transfer window opened on July 1st. That means Coppell has had a solid three months with them which makes me think his players are going to be well drilled and all know their jobs. If we look at some of the specific signings, Andre Bikey has followed Coppell from Jamshedpur. The erratic Bikey is joined in defence by ex-Bengaluru stalwart, John Johnson and Gerson who was at Mumbai last time out. Having three foreign centre-backs suggests that Coppell may well be going with three at the back, or he is conscious of Bikey’s disciplinary record and just wants to cover his own back. Either way, it’s interesting.

Noussair El-Mimouni arrives from Morocco and one would have to think that he would feature as the enforcer in midfield. Alongside him, you’d have to expect Eugeneson Lyngdoh, who missed last season through an unfortunate long-term injury. Having Lyngdoh fit will be as good as having a new signing.

Who Will Miss Out?

In my head, I’ve got that Coppell will line up with a 3-4-3 formation which reverts to a 5-4-1 in defence. Meaning it’ll be the three foreigners at centre back, Lyngdoh and El-Mimouni anchoring the midfield with Ralte on one side & Prabir Das on the other. It gets a bit more tricky with the front three as only one more foreigner is allowed to play. Considering Lanzarote has got the skippers armband, you know it’ll be him. That means there’s no room for Kalu Uche which I find hard to believe as I envisage a front three of Balwant, Uche and Lanzarote. Alternatively, El-Mimouni drops out and is replaced by Pronay Halder who arrived from FC Goa. OR I’ve got the formation totally wrong and it’s four at the back. It’s a bloody minefield! Here is what I would do if I was Coppell*…

ATK Kerala Blasters Preview Indian Super League ISL
Strongest ATK XI, chosen by yours truly.

Oh yeah, I neglected to mention the signing of Everton Santos from Mumbai, he is arguably a match winner on his own. I’m not going to list all the possible starting XIs as I will be here until next Friday, but could we see a lineup where Santos and Uche both start down the middle with Balwant and Lanzarote flanking them? I don’t think it’s totally outside the realms of possibility.

ATK’s Squad Is Good Enough To Win The League

Make no mistake, ATK’s squad is big enough and talented enough to win the league, but the big question is, is Steve Coppell the right man to lead them to title number three? It’s understandable why they’ve put Coppell in charge after the abortion of a season last year, but he’s always been a safety-first type of head coach, especially in India. Last season with Jamshedpur, he built the side out from the back and aimed to nick a goal on the counter and what have you and that worked for large parts of the season. That worked with the players Coppell had at Jamshedpur and there was little or no expectation at the newly-formed club. It’s a different kettle of fish in Kolkata…

James’ Kerala

Much like his ATK opponent, James has also had a lot of time with his side over the summer. James stepped in at the midway point of last season after Rene Meulensteen was dismissed. Since then, Kerala have really gone from strength to strength and were unlucky to miss out on the playoffs in the end. The general consensus was that they would’ve made it if Ja mes was in charge for the whole season. No pressure this year, Jamo! Much like in Kolkata, there has been transfer activity galore for the Blasters, as well.

While some clubs tend to favour a certain nationality of player, James’ side are no different as they’ve gone for a somewhat Balkan feel. With Nemanja Lakic-Pesic already at the club, they’ve also added fellow Serbs, Slavisa Stojanovic & Nikola Krcmarevic. Plus, Matej Poplatnik, who hails from Slovenia also joins the Kerala ranks.  

Will The Balkan Approach Work?

With Anas arriving from Jamshedpur and Cyril Kali coming from Apollon Pontou, it was clear that James was looking to strengthen his backline, especially considering Wes Brown has left the club. One of the biggest differences between ATK & Kerala in the transfer market is the type of players that they’ve gone after. James alluded to it in his press conference when he said that ATK are going for immediate success by going for proven ISL players. Kerala have gone right the other way and gone for players, especially foreigners with little or no experience. Admittedly, they’ve retained the likes of Courage Pekuson & Keziron who were at the club last year, but even still. Here’s what I think James should do*…

ATK Kerala Blasters Preview Indian Super League ISL
Strongest Kerala XI, chosen by yours truly.

While I know that it is incredibly unlikely, that’s what I would do. Krcmarevic will be fine on his own and if he gets too overrun, Anas or Jhingan can step forward to partner him. After all, you’ve got to play to win. I’ve opted for a two up front as I think Stojanovic and Poplatnik will work better together as a pair than on their own. Yes, in case you’re wondering, I do play a lot of Football Manager.

Summary

For the most part, it’s difficult to tactically preview opening games of the season because it really is anybody’s guess! The lack of coverage on the preseason friendlies doesn’t help either, but you’ve got to give it a go, haven’t you? Overall, I think we will see ATK dominate proceedings as Kerala try and sit tight before nicking a goal on the counter. Rather ironically, that was Coppell’s plan at Jamshedpur, so wouldn’t it be ironic if he was usurped by his own master plan? Time will tell.

One More Thing

If I was a betting man and luckily I am, I’d be backing ATK to win @ 11/10 which is an absolute steal. Considering their squad, they should be odds-on. Enjoy your winnings.

Until the next time.

*Yes, I know that not all the players are available due to differing reasons, but it’s the first game of the season, so I’m showing my side for the whole year. Happy? Splendid.

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