Kochi: Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) head coach Jose Molina will look to emulate former coach Antonio Habas in winning the Indian Super League (ISL) title in the first attempt, while Steve Coppell will try and satiate Kerala Blasters’ ambitions of exacting revenge and clinching the first crown in the summit clash here on Sunday.
While Kerala will have the massive home support at the Jawarharlal Nehru Stadium in their favour, Kolkata have history strongly backing them. Since November 21 two years back, the hosts have never beaten ATK with the final in the same year, which happened to be ISL’s first edition, crowning the Kolkata outfit in glory and shoving the southern side to the backwaters. This edition too, the former champions had the last laugh in Kochi in the league stages. But past form, as Molina had pointed out before leaving Kolkata on Friday, could count for nothing. Kerala go into the tie with a record six-match winning run at home to bank upon.
“It’s two years ago and we have only a couple of players who were part of that match. In fact we have one player who scored the winning goal (in that match),” Coppell had said.
“I believe in the present. Past is past,” was Molina’s statement.
Mohammed Rafique will have special memories of the 2014 final where he came off the bench to head home the winner in fourth minute of added time to seal a historic victory for ATK.
Since then much has changed. Rafique is now with Kerala, incidentally scoring the winning penalty in the semifinal against Delhi Dynamos on Wednesday.
ATK, on their part, will be hoping to become the first team to win the competition twice in three years. Coming to both the team compositions and key players, Kerala won’t like to change too much and stick to the XI that has been winning games for them of late. They turned it around in the business end of the league stages after initially floundering.
In their defence, the likes of marquee player Aaron Hughes Cedric Hengbart — who has been one of the best defenders this season — will form the heart with Sandesh Jhingan a certainty at full back.
Seasoned camaigner Mehtab Hossain has been very good in midfield and winning the second balls while C.K. Vineeth, since coming from Bengaluru FC, has been a revelation by scoring five times in eight matches. For ATK, the flanks have been their strength with in-form Javi Lara and the imperious Sameehg Doutie likely to man them. The duo have been the most consistent players for ATK besides Iain Hume who after a sedate start got back his scoring boots and in style. Marquee player Helder Postiga is likely to play in the hole behind Hume and his industry in that area is what Molina will be keenly banking on.
Borja Fernandez in midfield has been a mainstay and with Stephen Pearson who will be given the role to move up front, ATK look settled there. Defence has been their Achilles heel and Molina knows he needs his back-four to be at the top of their game on Sunday.
India centre-back Arnab Mondal’s injury means one option less and Tiri and Henrique Sereno are the likely options to be paired along wih Pritam Kotal, who picked up an eye injury in the fracas that broke out after the semifinal second leg, and Prabir Das playing wide.
Robert Lalthlamuana and Juan Belencoso picked up red cards in the last game and will sit out in the final. The final is also being billed as a clash between former star cricketers Sachin Tendulkar (co-owner, Kerala) and Sourav Ganguly (co-owner, Kolkata), who formed one of the best batting partnerships in world cricket.
While cricket united the two sporting legends, the ISL final on Sunday will see them ‘divided’ as they try to inspire their respective teams to glory.