And Here we go again. A New Season. A New Coach. A New Journey. But the Same Old Hope. The Same Old Fanbase and The Same Old Dream. The Dream of Kerala Blasters winning the Indian Super League.
As part of our series, we would be taking a look at all the 10 ISL teams, where they stand at the moment and what should be the way forward for them going into the next season.
Sixth up on our list is Kerala Blasters.
Performance in previous season– 7th position in the League.
The last season was a really disappointing one from the Kerala Blasters point of view. Eelco Schattorie was appointed as their Head Coach amid much fanfare before the start of the season and he promised a style of football that would be a pleasure to watch for the Kerala fans. Although he tried his best in implementing that, he wasn’t quite successful. Call it bad luck on his part or anything but constant injuries to his key players didn’t help his cause either. His choice in selection of players raised quite a few eyebrows as well. But having said all of that, Eelco did as much as he could with the limited resources he had last season and most of the Kerala fans were rooting for his extension. “IN EELCO WE TRUST” were the words on everyone’s lips and it looked like Eelco would get atleast another season to prove his worth. But as the case with Kerala Blasters has always been, Eelco Schattorie was sacked at the end of the season as he became the 8th Different Coach and 9th Overall to be sacked by the Blasters.
So after the sacking of Eelco, how have the Kerala Management been going about their business? Let’s take a look at what are the major decisions that the Kerala Blasters have taken so far.
THE SIGNING OF A SPORTING DIRECTOR
Karolis Skinkys was signed as the Sporting Director of the Kerala Blasters after the end of the season. With more than half a decade of experience as the Sporting Director of FK Suduva, a top division club in Lithuania, Karolis brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the Kerala Blasters. During his tenure at Suduva, Karolis played an integral role in the process of team selection and internal leadership management. Under his guidance, the club rose to the top of the Lithuanian league in 2017, 2018 and in 2019 qualifying for the following year’s UEFA Champions League, the first time in its club’s history.
Kerala would be expecting something similar from Karolis and given the decisions Karolis has made for the the club so far, one thing’s for sure – Karolis has been given a free hand in his role at the club and he is the one who will make all the important decisions. Let’s look at the decisions he has made at the club in the off season so far:
APPOINTING KIBU VICUNA AS THE HEAD COACH
Probably the biggest decision Kerala Blasters have taken going into the next season is appointing Spaniard Kibu Vicuna as their Head Coach. Vicuna won the I-League with Mohun Bagan in 2019-20 and was instrumental in the Mariners’ first victorious campaign in the I-League since 2014-15. Even more enthralling was his playing style as Mohun Bagan played a fluent, possession based style of football and were quite a sight to watch. It would not be wrong to say that Mohun Bagan played the best football in India last season after FC Goa. Thus, having already won a title last season, Vicuna would be expected to deliver the goods at Kerala straightaway. Kerala have had a poor record with coaches in yesteryears and who knows whether it might just turn out to be a blessing in disguise as if there’s one man who perfectly fits the bill to lead Kerala Blasters next season, its Kibu Vicuna. And having already handled the pressure of managing a team like Mohun Bagan, it would not be surprising in case he manages the Kerala Blasters with equal ease and efficiency and lands them their first ever ISL Title.
LETTING SANDESH JHINGAN, TIRI AND OGBECHE GO
Much was expected of Tiri when he signed for the Kerala Blasters. One of the best defenders ever to grace the Indian Super League, Tiri along with Sandesh Jhingan were expected to form a formidable partnership at the back for the club. Fans were dreaming of a back 4 consisting of Jessel on the left, Nishu on the right with Sandesh and Tiri being the two centre halves. But their dreams were soon shattered by the club when Tiri announced that his pre-contract with the club stands cancelled and he is not joining the club anymore. If reports are to be believed, Tiri was asked to take a pay cut in the contract originally discussed which he was unwilling to do. As a result, Tiri has now signed with ATK MOHUN BAGAN. What came as something even more shocking to the fans was the departure of fan favourite Sandesh Jhingan. After six long years of service to the club, Jhingan decided to terminate his contract with the Blasters on mutual terms. The reasons for the same are yet unknown but one thing for sure, not one Kerala fan was happy with their iconic defender leaving the club. Sandesh Jhingan is India’s best bet at Central defence at the moment and letting go of one of India’s best players didn’t go down very well with the fans.
Apart from the two defenders, another player to leave the club is Bartholomew Ogbeche. The Nigerian Hitman is one of the finest imports in the ISL and was a revelation last season for the Blasters. In as disappointing a season as the last one, Ogbeche was one of the few players who brought a smile on the faces of the fans with his performances day in and day out. Ogbeche was also asked to take a pay cut with which he wasn’t happy and thus decided to move onto greener pastures. Letting go of a player of Ogbeche’s class is something that can come back to haunt the Kerala Blasters next season, as there’s every chance that Ogbeche will get a couple of chances to score bucket loads of goals against his former club. Thus, three of the best players in the League were released by the Kerala Blasters in the off season under the tutelage of their New Sporting Director.
MAKING EFFORTS TO BALANCE THE FINANCES
It’s absolutely no secret to anyone that most of the ISL franchises are running in losses. And this is one area in which Karolis is trying his best, as he’s trying to balance the club’s balances if not earn profits immediately. Thus, it was his decision to offer the players a pay cut. And as a result of this decision, players like Tiri and Ogbeche were let go off by the club. Speaking short term, it looks like a really bad decision to let go of the best players in the League but thinking about the long term, it might just be one of the best decisions ever taken by a club in the Indian Super League. In the modern world, every club has two goals. Winning trophies is the most important and the very primary one. But making profits is equally important if not more, as if the club goes on making losses, it cannot survive for long. Thus, changing the way in which the club operates is something that Karolis has done in order to reduce the amount spent during a season. It doesn’t include just the player salaries but several other things as well. With Karolis leading the administrative line for them, it’s only a matter of time before they start making profits. Its time for them to focus on the ON-FIELD stuff now.
As far the the transfer dealings for the next season are concerned, its not just that the players are going out of the club. Kerala have been one of the busier clubs in the market as far as signing players is concerned as well. Let’s look at the players signed so far by the Kerala Blasters going into the next season.
Probably the biggest signing going into the next season, Nishu comes with a reputation of being one of the finest youngsters in India. Having already played Senior Team Football for 5 years at Bengaluru FC, Nishu is quite an experienced professional and at 22 years of age, has a long career ahead of him. Having already made his debut for the National Team, Nishu is no stranger to pressure either. A versatile player in his own right, Nishu can play at left back, right back or the defensive midfielder with equal ease. If needed, he can move up to the wings as well. Signing a player having such massive potential, Kerala have surely made the right investment as far as Nishu is concerned. A four year long contract is no less either and Kerala fans have absolutely every reason to be delighted about this one.
Kerala Blasters seem to be focusing on making a team for the future and all their signings indicate towards the same thing. At 22, PUITEA has a big career ahead of him and can potentially make one of the midfield slots his own in the future. RITWIK DAS has also been signed from Real Kashmir to solidify the midfield. There was one area in which Kerala Blasters lacked the most last season and that was the goalkeeping department and they have signed two able custodians in the form of ALBINO GOMES and PRABSUKHAN SINGH GILL. While Albino was one of the finest keepers in the country before he got injured, Gill is surely one to watch out for in the future. He, along with Nawaz and Dheeraj will surely be competing for that one slot in the National Team in the future, the slot currently held by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. While ROHIT KUMAR has been signed to strengthen the defensive midfielder position, the signing of GIVSON SINGH is the one which can be the defining signing for years to come. Still only 17, Givson plays as an attacking midfielder and is one of the finest players from the India Under-16 batch that almost reached the Under 17 World Cup last time around. If developed properly, Givson is one player who can easily play in Europe in the near future. Having returned from loan to Mohun Bagan, NONGDAMBA NAOREM can be labelled as a new signing as well, given that he has never played for the Kerala Blasters before. Naorem had a breakthrough season at Mohun Bagan last year and continuing his development under Kibu Vicuna at Kerala could just turn out to be the perfect stepping stone in his career. Naorem would certainly be one of the players to watch out for next season. Make sure you keep an eye on this lad.
Kerala Blasters have surely made a tremendous Indian squad which has the capability to be the best in future. But the major slots in each ISL team are taken up by the foreigners and for immediate performances, its the foreigners who matter more. And all the foreigners from last season except a certain Sergio Cidoncha look to be on their way out of the club. So let’s take a look at the potential players they can target and build their squad around for the next season.
If there’s one department where Kerala lack as far as the Indian players are concerned, it’s the central defence. We have seen most teams in the ISL using foreigners in that all important position and Kerala should look to do no different in the coming season. What was once looking like a sublime defensive partnership of Tiri and Jhingan is now just in the dreams of the fans. Well, the ATK Mohun Bagan fans still certainly dream of that partnership but that’s for another day. As far as Kerala are concerned, they should look no further than Oswaldo Henriquez. Just 30 years of age, Oswaldo is in the prime of his career and can potentially fit into the Kerala side for years to come. The quality that Oswaldo possesses can be derived by the fact that he has been playing in the Seria A(Brazilian Top Division) for five years now and has performed admirably. Having already played in different leagues like the Columbian League, the Mexican League and obviously the Brazilian League, adapting to a new League shouldn’t be too difficult for the Columbian either. Kerala fans were really disappointed to see a player like Tiri go, but if they manage to sign Oswaldo, they can have an even better player among their ranks.
Joseba Beitia was a revelation for Mohun Bagan in the last season. 3 goals and 9 assists are enough to speak about his impact on Mohun Bagan winning the I-League Title last year. At 29, he is at the very peak of his powers as well and could turn out to be just the player that the Kerala Blasters need. ATK Mohun Bagan have already decided not to retain the ‘Mohun Bagan Player of the Year’ and thus, he has every reason to join the Kerala Blasters and re-unite with his former Coach Kibu Vicuna. At Kerala, he could play a massive role in the development of other Indian midfielders like Sahal Abdul Samad and Jeakson Singh as well as they can learn a lot from a player like Beitia. Playing alongside a leader like Beitia will help them develop their own game as well, just like the case of a certain Sk Sahil at Mohun Bagan. Kerala, much like Mohun Bagan last year, would play a possession based game under Kibu next season and Joseba Beitia is an absolute master at it. He likes to drop deep and initiate attacks and this could exactly be his role at the Kerala Blasters. Thus, Kerala should go all guns blazing in order to sign Joseba Beitia.
Another Mohun Bagan Startlet. Another of Kibu Vicuna’s most trusted players. Another Mohun Bagan player to move to Kerala Blasters? Well, if Joseba Beitia’s impact on Mohun Bagan’s Title winning season was huge, same can be said for his partner in crime Fran Gonzalez as well. Scoring 10 goals in just 13 matches, that too playing as a defensive midfielder at times and a centre-back other times, it’s just mind-blowing to say the least. Joseba Beitia and Fran Gonazalez already have a good understanding between each other and signing both of them can turn out to be spectacular for the Kerala Blasters. Fran can possibly pair up alongside Oswaldo Henriquez and can do the job of playing out from the back, much like he did last season for Mohun Bagan. Kerala have been linked to both Fran Gonzalez and Joseba Beitia and given the impact both of them can have on a team, it can turn out to be really beneficial for them in case they manage to lure them. What will help them in this case is the signing of Kibu Vicuna. Both the players were among the most trusted men of Kibu last season and would love to play under him again. In case both of them are signed, they might just repeat their heroics from last season.
SALAM RANJAN SINGH
If there’s one team which has always played with an Indian Centre-back, its the Kerala Blasters, for they had Sandesh Jhingan for the last six seasons. But even after his departure, Kerala Blasters might just continue their trend of playing with an Indian Centre-back. And they should be looking no further than India International Salam Ranjan Singh. Hailed as one of the finest centre-backs in the country, Salam’s career has come to a standstill. He got just 4 matches under his belt last season at ATK and seems to be heading out of the club in search of greener pastures. This is where Kerala can swoop in and get their hands on the player who represented his nation in the Asian Cup last year. A bit of playing time and some good solid performances can do wonders for Salam’s career and he could be back into the National Team reckoning as well. At 24 years of age, he is still very young and has all his future in front of him. If Kerala can get him now, he could just turn out to be the perfect replacement for Sandesh Jhingan, and can don the Kerala Yellow for years to come.
A QUALITY STRIKER
The last position that the Kerala Blasters need to strengthen for next season is probably the most important of them all. Last season, Bartholomew Ogbeche did the job of scoring goals for them, but he is no more available at the club after a fallout with the management. Thus, Kerala need to sign a striker who can deliver them the goods next season. There are plenty of options available to choose from in the market and it would be interesting to see who Kerala opt for. Some of the players who they can target are:
- Nerijus Valskis
- Adam le Fondre
- Manuel Onwu
- Ferran Corominas
- Sergio Castel
- Jobby Justin
- Bartholomew Ogbeche (Retain by settling the dispute)
All these are names who have already proven themselves in the ISL with the exception of a certain Adam la Fondre, but Le Fondre has been racking up the goals in the A-League and several ISL clubs are vying for his signature. Thus, the chances of Kerala getting him look less. Kerala can look towards signing Keralite Jobby Justin as well. They might have to pay a transfer fee for the player but Jobby is one of the better strikers in India at the moment and will be loved in Kerala. With a little backing, he can surely turn out to be a really good signing for the Kerala Blasters.
In case Kerala are serious about posing a Title challenge, they should possibly look towards signing a young foreign striker, someone like a Sergio Castel. Kerala Blasters are building a young team and Sergio Castel fits in that bill perfectly. Everyone saw the quality Castel possesses last season and if Kerala Blasters can get him, the can surely make a squad that will not just be good enough to compete for the ISL Title next season, but could be Title Challengers for years to come.
Let’s take a look at how could Kerala Lineup next season:
Kerala Blasters are making a young squad and everything they have done in the off season indicates that they are thinking long term. Their Sporting Director seems to know what he is doing and if that’s the case, he can lead Kerala Blasters to glory. In Sahal, Rahul, Naorem, Jeakson, Nishu, Gill and Givson, they have some of the best young talent in the country which could serve them for years to come. In case they manage to get their transfer targets spot on, Kerala can pose a serious challenge to all other teams next season. They might not be Title Favourites just yet, but the way things are progressing at the club, everything points towards good days, days when they can possibly rule Indian Football. But for that, Kerala Blasters would need to be patient and as the saying goes- “PATIENCE IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS”, and hopefully Kerala Blasters would adhere to it from now on. In case they do so, the future is all Kerala’s.
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