Stage set for the big kick-off

The first match promises to be a riveting encounter, with two of the best teams in the competition locking horns. Chennaiyin FC have the fanatical home support to count on, while the defending champions are high on confidence, especially after a very successful pre-season.

ATK coach Antonio Habas has some last minute instructions for his boys ahead of the season opener.   -  R. Ragu

Chennaiyn FC coach Marco Materazzi and defender Abhishek Das during the pre-match media interaction.   -  R. Ragu

The Jawaharalal Nehru Stadium getting decked up for the opening ceremony.   -  R. Ragu

The second edition of the Indian Super League is slated to have a grand kick-off at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here tomorrow, with last season’s most consistent team, Chennaiyin FC, taking on the defending champions Atletico de Kolkata. Movie starlets Aishwarya Rai and Alia Bhatt will be the main acts for the opening ceremony, which will be hosted by Bollywood actor Arjun Kapoor. A. R. Rahman has composed a rendition of the national anthem, which will be played ahead of all the 61 matches.

A day before the opener, during the mandatory media interaction, Marco Materazzi, Chennaiyin FC coach, said: “Last year, we were the last franchisee to be assembled but we ended up reaching the semi-finals, topping the group stages. This year, of course, we had a lot more time to organise the team. But, in a way, we are still rebuilding our team from scratch and are looking for a great season ahead.”

The Italian has a full squad at his disposal ahead of the first game. Having retained players like Elano Blumer, Stiven Mendoza, Bernard Mendy and Bruno Pelissari, Chennaiyin’s foreign spine is intact. The addition of players like Edel Bete and Fikru Teferra (part of the Kolkata team last term) has further strengthened the squad.

The team had a pre-season outing in Italy and played four friendlies – beating Ortana 2-0 and ASD San Donato Tavarnelle 5-1, and losing 2-1 to Gualdo Casacastalda and 2-0 against Unione Sportiva Arezzo.

Speaking about the Italian sojourn, the former Inter Milan defender said: “The most important thing of the pre-season was to get to know each other. I was very impressed with Bruno Pelissari. Everyone put in the hard yards. All of them did a great job.” Among the Indian players, he picked out midfielder Harmanjot Khabra and forward Jayesh Rane for special praise.

Defender Abhishek Das, who missed out large part of last season’s campaign due to an injury, is eager to put all that disappointment behind. “Last year it was disappointing as I was injured throughout the season. This season, I just want to prove myself and live up to the expectations of my coach,” he said. Clearly benefitting from the presence of Materazzi, one of the best defenders during his playing days, Das said the former Italian international has helped him during the pre-season to fine tune his positioning while defending.

Talking about tomorrow’s opponents, Materazzi said that he is happy to face the ISL champions. “I always want to play against the best teams. It is going to be a great game and I am looking forward to it.”

Unlike Chennaiyin, the defending champions have undergone a sea change and, at least on paper, are looking stronger compared to last season. Key performers from Season I, Josemi, Ofentse Nato and Borja Fernandez are very much there and will hold the team together, but their new signings – Portuguese striker Helder Postiga, Iain Hume and Javi Lara – can give them an edge.

Postiga, who has played for top European sides like Porto, Tottenham Hotspur and Valencia, is excited about playing in the ISL. “I came here because it is a challenge for me. I want to make a difference to Indian football,” he said.

Antonio Lopez Habas, who won FPAI’s Coach of the Year award recently, is happy with the changes made to his squad. “We have made a few changes from last year, but the squad we have now is better. I was concentrating on assembling the most competitive team. I have full confidence on the 26 players selected,” he said.

Stressing the importance of pre-season, he added: “Fundamentally it is important, as the coach gets to know the new players, especially the Indians. For me, the style of play is very important.”

At 33, Postiga is the youngest marquee player of the nascent League and has big boots to fill, replacing former Liverpool star Luis Garcia. “Pressure is always there in football. It is important as it motivates us to work harder,” Postiga said.

The first match promises to be a riveting encounter, with two of the best teams in the competition locking horns. Chennaiyin FC have the fanatical home support to count on, while the defending champions are high on confidence, especially after a very successful pre-season, where they scored 18 goals and conceded just three in four victorious friendlies.

It’s time again to be a part of the glitz and glamour of the ISL, which was the fourth biggest league in the world last season in terms of attendance numbers. So, come on India, 'Let’s football!'

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