Kochi: Kerala Blasters begin another season of the Indian Super League (ISL) amid high hopes as they take on two-time champions ATK in the inaugural match at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here on Sunday.
The Yellow Brigade found the going tough in the last two editions and have roped in Eelco Schattorie to guide them in the sixth edition of the ISL. The Dutchman was instrumental in taking NorthEast United FC to their maiden play-offs last season.
Nigerian striker Bartholomew Ogbeche, who played a key role in NorthEast's fine run, will be Schattorie's trump card at Blasters as well.
He has been given the captain's arm band and for Blasters to go the distance, the 2002 Super Eagles World Cupper has to be in his element.
“Opening games are always difficult, there is going to be huge expectations, that is part of the game. It is all about stabilising the team, I think we are ready to face ATK,” Schattorie said in his pre-match press conference on Saturday.
However, there are plenty of injury concerns for Blasters, especially in the backline.
Sandesh Jhingan, who has been a pillar of strength in the defence, is likely to miss a few months of action after picking up an injury in a friendly for the national team against NorthEast United.
To make matters worse, Brazilian defender Jairo, centre-back Gianni Zuiverloon and midfielder Mario Arques have injury worries and it remains to be seen how fit they are.
“We did not have the perfect preparation. We had some foreign players arriving with injuries. We are two-three weeks behind, we need to catch up,” said a cautious coach.
Schattorie sounded pragmatic about the task at hand.
“It is not like a tomato soup where I can copy all the ingredients (from a successful season with NorthEast). The whole team is almost new. But I am ready to take up the challenge.”
Blasters have signed Raju Gaekwad to bolster their defence.
“I have worked with Raju before and we needed another centre-back with experience. His fitness is not up to the mark and he didn’t have a pre-season. But the atmosphere is in the squad is good,” Schattori added.
ATK, on the other hand, have gone back to Spaniard Antonio Habas after a forgettable campaign last season, when the Kolkata side finished sixth.
Habas guided them to glory in the inaugural edition and followed it up with another run to the play-off the very next season.
Setback for ATK
ATK's two key men -– defender Anas Edathodika and striker Jobby Justin -– are out with suspension and won't be taking any part in the marquee clash in their home state.
However, ATK will be determined to put up a gritty show in front of their co-owner and Indian cricket legend Sourav Ganguly.
There will be no dearth of support for Blasters on Sunday.
Their loyal fans will be hoping for a perfect start after the disappointments of the past two seasons.
The experienced Schattorie, who knows the importance of early wins, will be eyeing nothing less than three points. He is likely to employ three strikers, with home hero K P Rahul being one of them, in the opener.
Blasters meet Mumbai City FC in their second game on Thursday and a win in the opening fixture will be the right recipe for them in their pursuit of the elusive crown.