Ahmedabad, May 18 (IANS) Four of the country’s most successful football teams will be in action when defending champions Gokulam Kerala FC, Sethu FC and Kickstart FC, who all finished on the podium last season, join Eastern Sporting Union, champions of the inaugural season, meet in the semifinals of the Indian Women’s League (IWL) 2023 here on Friday.
Defending champions Gokulam Kerala FC will be up against former winners Eastern Sporting Union, appearing in their first semifinal since 2017-18, at the TransStadia in Ahmedabad on Friday evening.
Having progressed from Group A as table-toppers with 19 points out of a possible 21, Gokulam Kerala edged Odisha FC on penalties after a nail-biting quarterfinal on Tuesday.
The Malabarians found themselves a goal down after just two minutes but equalised through Roja Devi’s goal before half-time. In the shootout, goalkeeper Beatrice Ntiwaa Nketia saved all three of Odisha’s penalties to help Gokulam win 3-0.
Ahead of the crucial semifinal against Eastern Sporting Union, Gokulam Kerala head coach Anthony Andrews said, “I am extremely excited about tomorrow’s match. We have been working hard to reach this stage. It’s a very important game, and we are fully focused and prepared to give our best performance.”
Gokulam clinched last season’s IWL title in quite a convincing style, winning all 11 of their games. Now, they find themselves within two games of a successful title defence, but Andrews is in no mood to look past tomorrow.
“Eastern Sporting Union are a strong and passionate side, who have performed well in group stages and progressed to the semis. We expect a tough challenge from them. However, I believe in my team’s abilities and we have prepared a strategic plan to overcome them,” he said.
The 2016-17 champions, Eastern Sporting Union, finished fourth in Group B to set up a quarterfinal clash with Sports Odisha, which ended 1-1 after 90 minutes. Lourembam Ronibala Chanu’s side ran out 4-2 winners on penalties, with captain Irom Prameshwori Devi scoring the winning spot-kick.
Eastern Sporting Union last reached the IWL final five years ago but will have to produce one of their most stunning performances ever against heavyweights Gokulam Kerala if they are to repeat that feat.
“We will go all out tomorrow, it’s a do-or-die game for us,” stated head coach Ronibala, whose side’s biggest challenge will be to try and stop striker Sabitra Bhandari. The Nepal international is on red-hot form at the moment after having scored 26 goals in eight games.
“Gokulam will be the toughest opponent we have faced so far. Football is a team game, and if we do not allow them to create chances, there will be less probability of scoring. We will focus on winning and qualifying for finals,” she added.
Kickstart aim to end Sethu’s unbeaten run
The first semifinal, slated to be played at 5 pm, is poised to be a close contest in which former champion Sethu FC face off against Kickstart FC at the TransStadia. It will be the second meeting between the two sides in nine days after the spoils were shared in a goalless draw in the group stage.
Sethu, who won the IWL title in 2018-19, came within touching distance of clinching the crown again last season in Bhubaneswar, finishing a mere three points adrift of Gokulam. The Madurai side topped Group B this season with five wins and two draws, and a 9-0 thrashing of East Bengal in the quarterfinal has given them another shot at becoming champions.
Head coach Joseph Naik reflected on the previous meeting with Kickstart in the group stage and shared his expectations from the game. “They are a good side with experienced players, so it won’t be an easy game. They will fight to win, but we will play our brand of football to overcome their challenge,” he said.
Kickstart finished third in the IWL last season, but are aiming to go higher in this campaign. They finished in second place in Group B, behind Sethu and defeated HOPS 2-1 in the quarterfinal on Tuesday, thanks to an injury-time winner from Kenyan forward Kioko Elizabeth Katungwa.
Head coach Chaoba Devi and her side are raring to go. “We will not miss this golden opportunity. Our girls are well prepared to go all out. This is the kind of match the players have been waiting for, and now is the chance to prove their worth,” she said.