Simon Grayson’s Bengaluru FC are set to square up against Kerala Blasters as ISL-X gets going with a fixture for the galleries, at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi on Thursday.
Bengaluru FC, who reached the summit clash last season, will look to get their campaign off to a positive start against the Blasters, who controversially staged a walkout in protest when the two teams last met in the ISL semi-final on March 3.
Blasters were heavily fined and coach Ivan Vukomanovic was banned for 10 matches by the disciplinary committee of the All India Football Federation. "I have four more matches to serve," the Serb had said in Calcutta during the ISL Media Day last week.
In its order, the disciplinary committee had said the Serb would be banned/suspended for 10 matches in AIFF-held tournaments. Vukomanovic sat out in three Super Cup games and as many Durand Cup matches. Assistant coach Frank Dauwen is set to handle the reins from the sideline.
Bengaluru were active in the transfer market, signing as many as 11 players over the summer. Grayson, in the news conference ahead of the game, spoke about the new-look side.
"I’m really pleased with the squad we have at our disposal this season. We’ve got a competitive group of players with some really good characters. The foreign players who have joined us this season, and the players who have come up through the ranks give us a very balanced team and I’m looking forward to the challenge in what will be a very competitive season," said Grayson.
With skipper Sunil Chhetri away at the Asian Games, summer signing Curtis Main will be expected to start alongside club top-scorer Sivasakthi Narayanan in attack. It will be interesting to see how Grayson lines up his squad for Thursday’s fixture, with the likes of Slavko Damjanovic, Jessel Carneiro, Ryan Williams and Keziah Veendorp all staking claim for a place in the starting 11.
"We have six foreigners to choose from and we can only play four at any particular time. But whoever is in that team, whether it is three foreign players and the rest are made up of Indian players, I will pick a team that we think will be competitive and try to get a result against a strong Kerala Blasters team," added Grayson.
The Blasters, meanwhile, have made several changes to their own squad, with the likes of Pritam Kotal, Prabir Das, Milos Drincic, Daisuke Sakai and Kwame Peprah among their incomings.
The atmosphere at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium is bound to be electric, given the history between the two sides. The visiting manager also talked about their preparation to face the confrontational environment.
"All the players should be thriving and looking forward to this game tomorrow because it is the start of a new season and a new horizon for this football club and every other team that is involved as well. As a footballer, you want to play in these big games and you want to challenge yourself in front of hostile atmospheres and that’s what I’m expecting tomorrow," said Grayson.
Bengaluru boast a better record in fixtures between the two sides, with the Blues having won eight of 13 Indian Super League encounters against Kerala since 2017. The Blasters’ most recent win against Bengaluru came in this fixture last term, with Vukomanovic’s side claiming a 3-2 result in December. Blasters will be without Rahul KP, who scored a stunning goal against China on Tuesday, and Bryce Miranda. The duo are busy with the national team commitments in the Hangzhou Asian Games.