Gokulam Kerala vs ATK Mohun Bagan. The I-League vs the Indian Super League. New vs Old. Champions vs not Champions.
Despite the common thread of two Indian clubs facing off in the AFC Cup (again) this fixture is a study in contrasts. None more so, than in the clarity of their identity. On paper, this is only a match between two Group D opponents, but the larger narrative revolves around what these two sides represent, and their future in Indian football.
Gokulam are a side clear in their identity, which lends itself to incredible success on the pitch. Formed only in 2017, the club already boasts of the Durand Cup, two I-League titles, two Kerala Premier League titles and an Indian Women's League title occupying its trophy cabinet.
Success brings with it a burgeoning relationship with fans, with GKFC accustomed to playing in front of packed stands in football-crazy Kozhikode. Even with the pandemic bringing that to a halt, the bond with their fans remains strong.
As for the bond between ATK Mohun Bagan and their fans... let's just say it's a bit tetchy for the moment. The Kolkata giants have been wrestling with their identity off the pitch in recent times, but on the pitch have begun to form a semblance of a side that's clear in their style of play.
Juan Ferrando's appointment brought progression into the ISL semifinals, but one could still point at deficiencies in the side as they went down to eventual champions Hyderabad FC.
Ferrando does deserve credit for bringing organisation to a team that had lost it completely when he took over, made all the more impressive in a cramped ISL calendar whilst also dealing with a bio-bubble.
As evidenced by Mumbai City's improvement under Des Buckingham when afforded a prolonged chance to train, one could feasibly expect a far more Ferrando-esque side to emerge against Gokulam. ATKMB have spent their most recent weeks training intensely and even beating the national team in a friendly (Liston Colaco and Kiyan Nassiri scoring in a 2-1 win).
As for Gokulam, they had the small task of wrestling with another storied Kolkata giant in their most recent encounter. Despite the hostile opposition of 40,000+ in the stands, Gokulam Kerala managed to defeat Mohammedan Sporting 2-1 on the final day of the I-League season and become the first club in Indian history to defend the NFL/I-League title. This is a club rewriting the history books at the moment, whereas ATK Mohun Bagan are yearning to snatch their position at the top of the Indian footballing pyramid once more.
Success on the continental stage isn't a familiar feeling for Indian sides, but there have been shoots of promise, such as Bengaluru FC's run to the final of this very competition in 2016. Mumbai City broke new ground for Indian clubs with their AFC Champions League campaign last month, earning two wins and seven points to finish second in their group.
That ought to be the common aim for both these sides as they aim for a deep run in the AFC Cup. Bashundhara Kings and Maziya SC are familiar foes for ATK Mohun Bagan at this point, with the Indian side getting the better of the pair to finish top of their group last season. The knockouts were a brief affair for ATKMB, with eventual finalists FC Nasaf handing them a 6-0 hammering that had reverberations in Antonio Habas' beginning to the ISL 2021-22 season.
Gokulam, meanwhile, are continental debutants, with this their first ever appearance in the AFC Cup. The club's only international 'success' came when they reached the semifinal of the eight-team 2019 Sheik Kamal International Club Cup held in Bangladesh. Bashundhara Kings were vanquished 3-1 in the group stages then, with GKFC also having success when it comes to ATK Mohun Bagan and its previous guises in the Durand Cup. In three I-League seasons where both clubs featured, Gokulam's only win came in the first fixture between the pair, a 90th minute winner giving them a 2-1 win.
Past results lack relevancy though, since ATK Mohun Bagan have graduated to the Indian Super League, and with it, have assembled an all-star lineup featuring some of India's best. Gokulam's foreign contingent can hold their own, but they have relied on their academy products while marching to the I-League title this season, which included an unprecedented 21-match unbeaten run. As much as the argument is made to the contrary, an ISL side has greater weapons at its disposal and ought to start as favourites, even if against league champions.
Yet, as previous Super Cups have shown - football is played on the pitch, and any gaps in respective budgets, clout, etc. lose all meaning. Gokulam come into this game against ATKMB having the advantage of having played competitively only days prior, although you could argue a 2-1 win to decide the destiny of the league title against their rivals could be taxing in many ways. ATK Mohun Bagan have been playing friendlies in the build up to this competition, and while they may be fresh, they might lack match-competitiveness.
Will the champions of a league in its last throes as a top-flight division pull off a victory against the moneyed, under-achieving giants of Indian football? As ever, the answer will be on the pitch.
Group D of the AFC Cup represents the South Zone, with three direct entries for India (Gokulam Kerala - I-League champions), Bangladesh (Bashundhara Kings - Bangladesh Premier League champions) and Maldives (Maziya SC - Dhivehi Premier League Champions), the top three ranked member associations. The fourth entry involves qualifying rounds, with ATK Mohun Bagan (2020-21 Indian Super League regular season runners-up) navigating past Sri Lanka's Blue Star SC and Abahani Limited Dhaka of Bangladesh to make the group. Only the group winners move on to the inter-zone semifinal playoff, where they face the winners of Group J (Eastern, Must CPK, Tainan City and Lee Man).
Gokulam Kerala vs ATK Mohun Bagan - AFC Cup Group D match will begin at 4.30 pm on Tuesday, May 18. It will be shown LIVE on Star Sports 3 and can be streamed on Hotstar.