During the initial seasons of the Indian Super League, Kerala Blasters were expected to dominate the tournament along with the likes of the then-ATK and FC Goa, thanks to the trio’s long-standing football heritage. And while the Kolkata-based outfit and the Gaurs have consistently impressed, with the formers winning the most number of titles (three), the Blasters made the finals twice in the first three seasons (2014 and 2016). However, courtesy of a lot of chopping and changing of managers and players, the Kochi-based franchise has struggled for consistency, leading to horrendous last few seasons.
Now led by Mohun Bagan’s 2019-20 I-League winning coach Kibu Vicuna after Eelco Schatorrie’s sacking, the Blasters will have to work hard to go all the way, and rebuild a reputation in India’s top-flight football league.
The Kochi-based franchise have hired nine managers over the past six seasons, with only NorthEast United having had more (10).
Ahead of the new ISL season, we take an overall look at Kerala Blasters:
In the off-season, Blasters have almost gone for a squad overhaul, with marquee figures like Sandhesh Jhinghan, Bartholomew Ogbeche and Raphael Messi Bouli all leaving the club. While Jhinghan and Ogbeche moved within the league to ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC respectively, the ‘Cameroonian Messi’ returned to China, to the League One side Heilongjiang Lava Spring.
The Blasters, have, however, found replacements in almost every position. While they have recruited English striker Gary Hooper and Australian forward Jordan Murray, they have focused heavily on defence, bringing in goalkeepers Prabhsukhran Singh Gill and Albino Gomes, apart from defenders Nishu Kumar and Bakary Kone.
They also have snapped up Spanish defensive midfielder Vicente Gomes from Deportiva La Coruna, who comes on a free transfer, so that adds balance to the side.
Vicuna’s side has also roped in Argentinian Facundo Pereyra, a versatile attacking midfielder.
The Blasters have a well-balanced side this season, with enough backup options in all departments.
They have the experienced English striker Hooper. And while Hooper has not represented England at the international level, the former Norwich City man has amassed over 200 goals across domestic stints in England, Scotland and New Zealand. He also has the finishing abilities, and what adds to the side’s balance is the likes of Nishu Kumar and Jessel Carneiro, two defenders with immense attacking capabilities, who can assist Hooper.
Although Blasters finished at a disappointing seventh last season, Jessel proved his versatility with five assists, 78 clearances and 22 intercepts. Jessel, who has signed a contract with the team till 2023, played every minute for the team last term and will continue to provide flexibility to the Balsters in the upcoming season.
They also consist of centre-backs Bakary Kone and Costa Nhamoinesu, who have had experiences of the big European stage with stints at top clubs. The duo would be crucial to the Blasters’ defensive lineup in the upcoming season.
The Blasters have certainly lost leaders in Jhinghan and Ogbeche. While Jhinghan had been a mainstay at the Blasters with 78 appearances across six seasons, Ogbeche was their go-to man for producing goals. Ogbeche ended up as the joint top-scorer last season, with 15 goals in 16 appearances.
Defensively, too, the Blasters have been struggling of late. Goalkeeping errors and miscommunication among players have been a major issue, with the Blasters just keeping three clean sheets all season last time out. This has also led to conceding goals in the dying minutes of a game, and the Blasters must count every game as a must-win in order to motivate themselves and script a turnaround.
Additionally, Blasters have only managed to win two away games over the last couple of seasons (18 away games in total). Their away form has been a major worry mainly due to the defensive woes.
Although all matches will be played across Goa this time, the Blasters must ensure they don’t slip up and commit silly errors, which could threaten their campaign.
Player to watch out for
English striker Hooper might be new to Indian conditions, but he brings with him the immense experience of playing across clubs in England, Scotland and New Zealand. Having made almost 500 appearances in the domestic circuit and scored over 200 goals, Hooper will be a permanent starter under Vicuna and has some explosive finishing abilities.
He could also be an inspiration for youngsters like Sahal Abdul Samad in the squad, and his experience at the domestic level will certainly be invaluable. He also has the potential to score goals from close ranges, and cruise past the opposition’s defensive line.
The Blasters should eye nothing less than a playoff spot at least. As always, hopes will be high, and the team management has done well to bring in the likes of Nishu Kumar (who made a reputation at Bengaluru FC) and Vicente Gomez, among others. It will be interesting to see how they deal with the notable departures mentioned earlier, as they begin yet another new era under manager Vicuna.
Goalkeepers: Albino Gomes, Muheet Khan, Bilal Khan, Prabhsukhan Singh Gill.
Defenders: Nishu Kumar, Costa Nhamoinesu, Bakary Kone, Jessel Carneiro, Sandeep Singh, Abdul Hakku, Lalruatthara.
Midfielders: Sahal Abdul Samad, Rahul KP, Sergio Cidoncha, Vicente Gomez, Seityasen Singh, Givson Singh, Lalthathanga Khawlhring, Yendrembam Denechandra, Nongdamba Naorem, Arjun Jayaraj, Ayush Adhikari, Jeakson Singh, Prasanth Karuthadathkuni, Ritwik Das, Rohit Kumar
Forwards: Gary Hooper, Facundo Pereyra, Jordan Murray, Naorem Mahesh Singh, Shaiborlang Kharpan