In the annals of the Indian Super League (ISL), few clashes carried as much rivalry and banter as Kerala Blasters versus Bengaluru FC. The Twitter skirmishes between fervent fans often outshone the actual showdowns on the pitch.
However, everything changed dramatically on March 3, 2023. It was the playoff tie, and the legendary Sunil Chhetri, Bengaluru’s talisman, found himself standing over a freekick in extra time. What ensued would be etched in ISL history – Chhetri’s controversial goal, the most disputed ever, led to Blasters’ head coach, Ivan Vukomanovic, initiating a walkout. This unprecedented move resulted in the Blasters forfeiting the game and incurring a hefty fine from the All India Football Federation. Vukomanovic received a ten-game ban as punishment.
As the two sides prepare to meet once more at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi on Thursday, the anticipation is palpable. This fixture promises to be the grandest of contests, fittingly heralding the opening of the tenth ISL season. With Vukomanovic still serving his ban, his assistant Frank Dauwen will manage the Blasters from the dugout, hoping to accumulate points until Vukomanovic’s return to lead the Blasters in their quest for an elusive ISL title.
Bengaluru, on the other hand, will once again be under the stewardship of Simon Grayson, who has transformed the Blues into title contenders. Grayson came close to securing a second ISL trophy, narrowly losing the final in a shootout to ATK Mohun Bagan.
Dauwen, the Blasters’ interim manager, prefers to downplay the drama. He views this as just another game, emphasizing the start of a new season, saying, “What’s happened in the past is over, now we start a new season.”
Grayson, on the contrary, knows what to expect from the passionate fans and wants his players to be prepared for the fervent atmosphere. He expressed, “As a footballer, you want to play in these big games and you want to challenge yourself in front of a hostile atmosphere, and that’s what I’m expecting tomorrow.”
Indeed, the atmosphere promises to be electric, with the venue almost sold out. However, Blasters fans will miss the chance to vent their frustrations at Chhetri, whom they’ve labeled as the villain of the playoff saga, as he is away with the national team for the Asian Games.
Additionally, two Blasters players, Rahul KP and Bryce Miranda, are part of the Indian squad and will be absent for the ISL opener. Ishan Pandita and Saurav Mandal are still recovering from injuries, so Dauwen will have to rely on the other Indian talents at his disposal. Experienced players like Pritam Kotal and Prabir Das are expected to start, and Blasters fans have high hopes for new recruits Daisuke Sakai and Kwame Peprah. The hitman Dimitrios Diamantakos and playmaker and skipper Adrian Luna are available for the Blasters.
As for Bengaluru, Curtis Main is set to lead the attack alongside Siva Sakthi. The match is scheduled to kick off at 8 pm, promising a thrilling start to the ISL’s landmark tenth season.