Box-to-box by Arata Izumi: Looking ahead to the Hero ISL’s fiercest encounter

Follow former Hero ISL star, a Kerala Blasters FC and ATK great, Arata Izumi as he gives you a player’s perspective on all things ISL over the course of the 2018-19 season. New posts every week exclusively on indiansuperleague.com. Connect with Arata on Instagram @arataizumi or Twitter @neel0731

It’s been a long time coming, but the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) is finally back! And what better way to re-start proceedings than to witness one of Indian football’s fiercest rivalries. Being a former player of both ATK and Kerala Blasters makes watching this game all the more exciting for me. While the men in yellow might have won the reverse fixture earlier in the season, the fans still haven’t gotten over the two final defeats in 2014 and 2016. They always have a special grudge reserved for this particular fixture. This match is a war for everyone involved, right from the officials to the gigantic sets of supporters for both teams, but we can expect a real firecracker on Friday.

When I look back at my career, I feel privileged to have represented both Kerala Blasters and ATK. The pressure of 68,000 supporters at Kolkata and the intense unconditional support of 40,000 plus Kerala supporters was unparalleled. I was always considered this particular fixture as one of the biggest of the season. Every player dreamt of playing it and both clubs considered it as a ‘must win’ encounter.

Do-or-die for ATK

As I had predicted earlier, it has been a tough campaign for both ATK and Kerala. Despite the obvious talent within their squad, ATK have scored the least number of goals so far this campaign. I believe this has largely been down to the lack of understanding between the players and the overreliance on Manuel Lanzarote. The addition of Edu Garcia to the squad should provide the much-needed creativity and will reduce the burden on Lanzarote to come up with the goods.

Looking at their position in the table, ATK still have a fighting chance of making it to the play-offs, but they cannot afford any more slip ups. With 16 points on board, they will need a total of at least 28 to qualify. Every match will now seem like a do-or-die situation and the tie against Kerala could decide their future.

Kerala’s woes

Kerala, on the other hand, have almost no chance of making it to the next round. The poor run of form has simply been down to the lack of leadership within the squad. The goalkeepers don’t possess the required experience to command their defensive shape. Sandesh Jhingan is a warrior-like leader, but he lacks the ability to properly read a match according to the situation. However, I feel the biggest setback for the team was in midfield. Had Kerala possessed an attack-minded leader in midfield, we might have bore witness to something completely different from them. Being a Kerala supporter myself, it has been disappointing to watch the team play this season.

It is going to be a tough ask to expect Nelo Vingada to turn things around within such a short span of time. But if he can inculcate an identity and unique playing style in this team, then that would be a huge achievement in itself.

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