Back in November, ATK Mohun Bagan and Kerala Blasters FC entered the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2021-22 season with plenty of questions to answer. The Mariners, who had narrowly lost out to Mumbai City FC in the final months earlier, were looking to lay down an early marker. Kerala Blasters FC, on the other hand, were longing to propel themselves among the Hero ISL elite again.

On the opening night, though, only one team strengthened their credentials. Kerala Blasters FC portrayed how good they could be in patches but spells of inconsistency and wasteful finishing meant that the Mariners trumped them 4-2.

The margin of the defeat might have suggested that the Tuskers were set for another campaign of mediocrity. The display, though, just did enough to keep their passionate fan base believing that the good days might just be around the corner. And, they were proved right.

After that defeat, Kerala Blasters FC embarked on a remarkable 10-match unbeaten run. During this sequence, they outwitted the likes of Chennaiyin FC, Hyderabad FC and Mumbai City FC, with almost all of their performances boasting the perfect blend of efficiency and extravagance.

Their front four, in particular, found ways to put opposition defences under pressure. None of their forwards – the likes of Alvaro Vazquez and Roberto Pereyra Diaz top the Hero ISL goalscoring charts. Yet, were complementing each other in such a manner that midfielders of the ilk of Adrian Luna and Sahal Abdul Samad also flourished.

Defensively too, they kept things tight. Enes Sipovic and Marko Leskovic proved their worth, with the full-backs also performing their jobs well. Their midfield nexus, often comprising of Jeakson Singh and Puitea kept things ticking, without ever compromising on their defensive duties.  

ATK Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, traversed the opposite trajectory. The win against Kerala Blasters FC was followed up by an equally convincing victory over SC East Bengal. Yet, when the Islanders thumped them 5-1, the wheels started coming off.

They were conceding more goals than you would normally associate with an ATKMB side. Pritam Kotal was getting caught out of position regularly, Tiri was getting outnumbered and their midfielders weren’t doing enough to track back. They shipped several soft goals in the process too.

Up front, David Williams and Roy Krishna were unable to find their scoring boots as frequently as they usually do. Hugo Boumous dazzled at times but was probably weighed down by the extra defensive work, whereas Manvir Singh was also not clinical enough. The only bright spot, thus, was Liston Colaco’s ability to conjure something special out of nothing.  

More recently, though, it seems that the early season mean has returned. Kerala Blasters FC aren’t losing as many games as they did towards the end of the last term and in the opening fixture in 2021-22, but have just started to wobble a little.

It hasn’t been for a lack of effort. If anything, Kerala Blasters FC have overcome the Covid-19 setback and have been putting in the hard yards. Unfortunately for them, they have lacked the finishing kick to put the results of fixtures beyond doubt. That they have conceded the odd inexplicable goal hasn’t helped their matters either.

The Mariners, meanwhile, have been riding an incredible wave of optimism – a wave that started post Juan Ferrando’s arrival and has only grown in stature since. They have scored 11 goals in their last five games and have a goal difference of +7 during that period. ATK Mohun Bagan have also not lost a fixture since the Spaniard took over, with their last defeat coming on December 6.  

Match 66 Preview: Kerala Blasters FC take on ATK Mohun Bagan as semi-final race nears its climax

Manvir has made the net bulge four times in his last three starts. Liston has continued in an impressive vein, with Boumous pulling the strings like he was always meant to. Williams has also slotted into the side and has functioned as the ideal focal point, meaning that the Mariners have not been left ruing Krishna’s absence.

From that perspective, this game has perhaps come at the most opportune juncture for ATK Mohun Bagan. Not just because they can flex their muscles again – that too against a direct title rival, but also because a positive result will tell the rest of the Hero ISL that they have attained their pre-season level, if not bettered it.

For Kerala Blasters FC, this is a novel opportunity to show how far they have come since the opening day. The results have certainly suggested that but a victory against a side that totally outplayed them (in November) will act as the cherry on top.

As the Hero ISL enters its home stretch, there will be countless fixtures that will hold enormous significance. Yet, you feel this one is the cream of the crop. Not just because of where each is placed on the table, but also because the psychological boost it can provide to both clubs.