AFC Cup: Gokulam Kerala takes on the might of ATK Mohun Bagan

Gokulam Kerala became the first team to defend the I-League, when it edged out local giant Mohammedan Sporting 2-1 in the decider.

Gokulam Kerala players in training ahead of the AFC Cup opener.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The opening action in the AFC Cup group D league promises an interesting contest as the recently crowned I-league champion Gokulam Kerala FC takes on the local favourite and the former Indian Super League runner-up ATK Mohun Bagan, at the Salt Lake Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.

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Gokulam Kerala, which barely four days ago created I-League history by becoming the first team to retain the title, will be banking on its new found glory to challenge the established might and legacy of ATK Mohun Bagan.

In a real assessment of the strength and significance, ATK Mohun Bagan outweighs Gokulam Kerala on paper in terms of cost and investment but that should hardly count when it comes to the real action on the pitch. “In real terms, the budget of one player of ATK Mohun Bagan can buy 20 of our players including me. But the budget is only meant for the interest of the media and the owners of the clubs. What really counts is the commitment, emotion and performance on the pitch,” said the Gokulam Kerala coach Vincento Alberto Annese.

“I can say that it won’t be easy for ATK Mohun Bagan. We will be playing to win tomorrow,” added the Italian manager.

Annese said that one of the biggest strengths of his team is adaptability. “We are good at adapting to situations. We have plans in place for our opponents and we will play according to our strength,” he said.

For ATK Mohun Bagan, which finished third in the ISL season (2021-22), this will be an occasion to improve its showing in the continental club competition. The Kolkata giant reached the inter-zonal semifinals of the AFC Cup last year and would be eager to emulate its previous year’s performance.

“Every team in the group has three matches. So, it is important for us to have the right atmosphere in the dressing room to give our best in every match. Gokulam are high in performance but we had three weeks of training and I am satisfied with the preparation,” said ATK Mohun Bagan head coach Juan Ferrando.

Ferrando, who joined ATKMB midway through the ISL season, sees the AFC Cup as a new challenge after his team failed to claim the League Shield or the title in the country’s top league. The Spanish coach said that his team could not unleash its true potential because of recurrent injuries to key players.

“We did work with the team after the ISL and am happy with the progress. The fitness level has improved a lot and the players are understanding my style much better now,” Ferrando said while hoping for an improved performance from his side.

The ATK Mohun Bagan’s performance in the qualifying stages in the present tournament has been quite encouraging as it comfortably beat Sri Lanka’s Blue Star SC and Abahani Dhaka to book a group league berth.

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“We now have a side where our players can play in different positions proving that the quality of our players is very high. We are now ready to cope with any situation and go ahead,” was how Ferrando exuded confidence with his team.

Bangladesh league champion Bashundhara Kings takes on the Maldives’ league topper Maziya S&RC in the second match of the day.

Kick-off: ATKMB v Gokulam Kerala (4.30pm); Bashundhara Kings v Maziya Sports (8.30pm).

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