ATK Mohun Bagan FC’s Pritam Kotal is wary of the unknown threat which can be posed by SC East Bengal’s new recruits when they lock horns in the much anticipated Kolkata derby in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2021-22 at the PJN Stadium in Margao, Goa on Saturday evening.

The experienced defender has played each and every minute of the Mariners’ campaign this season, having scored once and assisted another apart from his regular defensive duties. A veteran of many such fixtures in the past, Kotal is familiar with the tension attached to the high-voltage fixture.

The roaring chants from the stands will be absent owing to the restrictions, but the intensity will be unmatched, as it had been over the years in the showpiece event of Indian football.

The ISL media team got an opportunity to catch up with the footballer ahead of the weekend clash.

Here are the excerpts from the interview:

How difficult was it to play a competitive match (Odisha FC game) after a gap of 18 days, with the irregularities attached during the break?

It was a very difficult time, when we did not play a match for 18 days and then turned up for the match against Odisha FC. However, we were happy to get out of our rooms after so many days, because it was very difficult for us during the isolation period. We were in a bubble from the beginning and then going into isolation was just severe. So, the Odisha FC match was something good for us, we got to play - the thing why we are here and the team did a pretty good job.

How did the players keep their shape and mental state healthy during the isolation? Did the players get time to get to know each other off the field and develop a bonding while staying inside the bubble?

When we were in quarantine, everyone was inside our rooms, so we did not get much time to get to know each other. But, in the bubble, outside the field, we got to know ourselves a lot better. We shared each other's life experiences, and got to share the difficult times we’ve gone through. We realised that life does not move in one rhythm, everyone has faced hardships and we also overcame them. We could meet each other during quarantine, but we used to get on a video call from our rooms sometimes. We used to play games sometimes.

Shuffling roles is difficult for a footballer. How have you adapted to the role of a central defender, having played most of your career as a side-back?

As a player, you have five coaches and a few options to put you in. I am comfortable with playing at centre-back, left-back as well as right-back. I never had a problem with shuffling positions. But, you know your role in the team, I have a different role when I play as a centre-back and a different one when I play as a right-back. If I manage to adapt to the role and work out well on it in training sessions, I would be able to replicate that inside the field.

The change of managerial duties (head coach) in between the season - what impact did that have on the players?

Yes, it is difficult for the players, when there is change of hands midway through the season. Two coaches have different philosophies, so it took some time to adapt to the new coach’s style of play. This happens throughout the world, and we have adapted to change.

Having been part of a lot of Kolkata derbies, how is the mood in the camp in the build-up to the big-day different from other seasons?

Whenever we play, our aim is to register three points, it doesn’t matter whether it is a derby or not. However, the match against SC East Bengal on Saturday is not going to be easy for us, because they have two-three new players in their squad. It will be a difficult match but we are confident of walking away with a win. Given the situation at this point in time, three points will give us confidence to break into the top four.  But, our aim is much more than finishing in the top-four.

How badly are you missing the fans, especially the atmosphere at the Salt Lake Stadium, on a derby day?

The crowd in a match like this acts as the 12th man. Like how they are missing the action, we are also missing them for sure. Hopefully, they are going to support us from wherever they are watching. The last-minute cheer from the fans inside a stadium which always boosts us will be majorly missing on the matchday. Hopefully, we’ll get to play matches in front of them in the future. It is a request to the fans to keep supporting the club and the players always.