After making it to the final twice in the first 3 years of the ISL, Kerala Blasters have failed to even make it to the playoffs in the next 4 seasons. After Steve Coppell led Kerala to the finals in 2016, he refused the contract extension the club put forth and since then the top job in Kerala has been a case of musical chairs. 4 new managers in 4 seasons, Rene Meulensteen, David James, Eelco Schattoire and Kibu Vicuna, who’s who of football management in the ISL, yet the Blasters have failed to crack the top 4 riddle.
Kerala Blasters have once again decided to rebuild from the ground up. They tried with Kibu Vicuna and new foreign core last season but only managed a 10th place finish among the 11 competing. This season the Blasters are following up on the same philosophy as they have appointed Ivan Vukomanovic as the new head coach and have also relieved all of their foreign recruits of last season, bringing in 6 new faces to replace them. Will this be the season when the Blasters finally make a turnaround?
Assesment of Kerala Blasters’ transfer window
The Blasters camp saw a lot of outgoings over the summer. They let go of their foreign recruits after just spending a season at the club on free transfers. Lalruatthara too left the club after spending 4 seasons with them. The former I-League and ISL Emerging Player of the award winner will be seen donning Odisha colours. Subho Ghosh and Naorem Singh have also been loaned out to SC East Bengal. Ritwik Das has been moved on to Jamshedpur FC, while Rohit Kumar has joined their Southern rivals, Bengaluru FC. Shaiborlang Kharpan and Bilal Khan have left the Blasters to move to the I-League joining Sudeva Delhi FC and Real Kashmir respectively.
Karolis Skinks’ primary objective over the summer was to find alternatives for the foreign players leaving the club. Bakary Kone and Costa Nhamoinesu, two of the Blasters foreign recruits in defence last season have been replaced by Enes Sipovic, who has played in the ISL with Chennaiyin and Marko Leskovic, coming in from Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb. They have also let go of their attacking pair comprising of Jordan Murray and Gary Hopper, replacing them with Alvaro Vazquez, signed from Sporting Gijon in the Spanish second division and Jorge Pereyra Diaz, who has joined the Blaster from Atletico Platense. Adrian Luna and Chenco Gyeltshen complete their foreign quota.
The Tuskers have also invested in youth signing 3 Indian players under the age of 23. Sanjeev Stalin has been signed from Aves in Portugal and the versatile youngster can play as a winger and wing back. Ruivah Hormipam has joined the Blasters from Punjab FC in the I-League and Vincy Barretto has also been roped in from local I-League rival Gokulam Kerala. Givson Singh another bright talent in the Blasters roster has been given a contract extension. While they have looked at young players to strengthen their Indian core, Blasters have signed Harmanjot Singh Khabra on a free transfer. Khabra, a veteran of Indian football brings in years of playing experience in the first division and also provides Vukomanovic with options as he can operate in the defence as well as the midfield.
The Blasters goalkeeping unit looks young and bright but lacks experience. Albino Gomes is very likely to be the no. 1 choice keeper for Vukomanovic with Prabhsukhan Singh Gill as his understudy. Albino has played extensively for Salgoacar in the I-League and was also the no.1 choice for Kibu Vicuna last season, the 27-year-old was under the bar for all of Kerala’s matches in the league last season. While Albino has a full season in the ISL under his belt, he conceded 36 goals last season, only Odisha who finished last conceeded more. Prabsukhan Gill, who was part of the Indian U-17 WC team, has played extensively in goal for the Indian Arrows in the I-League. The 20-year-old lad from Ludhiana moved to Bengaluru in 2019 and got to play for them twice before signing for the Blasters in 2020, but is yet to get his moment in the sun in a Blasters jersey. Sachin Suresh, a product of the Blasters academy has been given his first professional contract this season and he along with Muheet Shabir complete the goal-keeping unit at Kerala Blasters.
The Kone and Costa defensive partnership promised greatness last season, but failed to live up to the hype. The Blasters management have let go of both of them and have not to look far for a replacement as they signed Enes Sipovic from Chennaiyin. For his partner in crime, Blasters management had to move to Croatia to find Marko Leskovic. Both the Bosnian and Croatian have years of experience in their kitty and could be instrumental in stabilizing a back four that have over the years being guilty of conceding easy goals. Jessel Carniero, who has been handed the captain’s arm band this season will operate from the left. On the right, Vukomanovic has options in Nishu Kumar, Harmanjot Khabra and Sandeep Singh, who can also play at right back. It is very likely that Sandeep will get the nod from the gaffer to start on the right hand side and if things doesn’t go according to plans, Nishu or Khabra can deputize.
At the heart of the defence, Blasters have lined up potential replacements for Sipovic and Leskovic signing and retaining Indian players. Abdul Hakku, Denechandra Meitei and Sandeep Singh were all part of the Tuskers unit last season and have been retained to provide cover in central defence. Ruivah Hormipam is another bright young central defender signed this season by Kerala and Bijoy Varghese have been moved to the first team from the reserves. Sanjeev Stalin is likely to be Jessel’s deputy this season providing Vukomanovic with much needed cover in each of his defensive positions
There is literally an abundance of talent at Vukomanovic’s disposal in midfield. The Blasters midfield boasts of some of the finest talents in Indian football, with Sahal Abdul Samad’s being probably the brightest shining star of the lot. Sahal, a Kerala Blasters product through and through has already made 50 appearances for the Tuskers and will lead the Blasters midfield. Jeakson, India’s only goal scorer at the U-17 WC will be partnering with Khabra in the heart of the midfield and provide cover to the defence. Adrian Luna will probably get a free role and slip into the false 9 position with Rahul KP running down the right wing, a sight that the fills the heart of the Manjappada with joy.
While Vukomanovic’s 5 man midfield looks set, he has options on the bench that can change the course of the game when introduced. Puitea can play in central midfield and also on the Right Wing. Givson Singh and Ayush Adhikari provides cover for Jeakson and Khabra in central midfield if the latter’s partnership doesn’t work out. Prasanth K can play anywhere along the right hand side and he along with Vincy Barreto and Seityasen Singh gives the Blasters gaffer enough options on the right to tinker with. The left wing looks to be a pain area for the Blasters with lack of options but given their depth of wingers on the right hand side, we could very well see Vukomanovic use any of his personnel of the right on the left.
Kerala had let go of Jordan Murray and Gary Hopper who were roped in last season to help the Blasters with scoring. For 2021-22 season, the Blasters management have once again decided to go with an all foreign forward line. Alvaro Vazquez is arguably one of the biggest names in the ISL this season when we look at the foreign contingent who are going to ply their trade in India in 2021-22. Signed from Sporting Gijon, Vazquez has predominantly played in Spain, playing for clubs like Espanyol, Getafe and Zaragoza. He has played in the LA Liga and also in the Spanish Second Divison. He has also played under Michael Laudrup at Swansea City in the Premier League for a season on loan from Getafe. Not the most prolific goal scorer but Alvaro and his vast experience in Europe could come in handy for the Blasters.
Chenco Gyeltshen has been around in Indian football for 5 seasons now. The Bhutanese forward will start his second stint in the ISL with Kerala after a brief taste with Bengaluru in 2018-19 season. Chenco is handy in front of goal and given the lack of alternatives at Vukomanovic’s disposal on the left wing, Chenco could be seen playing more as a winger. Jorge Pereyra Diaz, the Argentine signed from Atletico Platense is likely to be Vazquez’s deputy. The Argentine can also tuck in the false 9 role and play as a second striker and his work rate is really comendable as he falls back along with his defence when his side loses the ball and his pressing ability is noteworthy.
Possible Line Up
Strength and Weakness
In Ivan Vukomanovic, Kerala Blasters have a man in charge who has ably led the sides he has managed in the past. Vukomanovic was an assistant to Guy Luzon before taking over the latter’s job in Standard Liege and have led the side in Europa League and the Belgian First Divison. During his stint at Liege, the side dropped only 11 points from a possible 39 available but was replaced by Jose Riga. He next managed Slovan Bratislava in the Slovan first division winning the Slovak Cup with them and losing only 5 games out of 22 in his second season. While Vukomanovic has quite the pedigree, he also assembled a team at Kerala which looks very complete with multiple options available to the gaffer in almost all of the positions across the defence and midfield. The Blasters started their pre-season earlier than any other club in the ISL as they wanted their foreign contingent to gel quickly and that seemed to have reaped benefits for them, with the foreigners settling in nicely, the Manjappada could be heading towards an exciting season.
One of the crevices in Vukomanovic’s armour this season will be the lack of alternatives on the left hand side. With only 3 players who are natural left sided players in the roster, the lack of depth on the left will have to managed by the surplus they have on the right hand side. While Kerala did start their pre-season early and their new manager and foreingers are stepping up, we will have to take into account the constant chopping and changing that goes on at Kochi means that the Kerala Blasters once again have a new unit at the helm and on the pitch and that might be a cause of some concern. Alvaro Vazquez and Jorge Pereyra Diaz are two of the main goal scoring options available to Vukomanovic and both the players have lacked game time in the recent past at their previous clubs, will they hit the ground running in Goa is something every Blasters fan will be asking themselves and if they don’t, where will the goals come from as Kerala are lacking goal scoring options upfront.
Probable finish in the league table
Kerala Blasters are too big a football club to be way from the play-offs for 5 straight seasons. They have missed out on top 4 over the last 4 years which they will look to amend this season. Vukomanovic has a proven track record of delivering results with the resources at his disposal but given how every other club has strengthened around them, the Blasters could find it difficult to break into the play-offs spot this season but they will definitely be a contender and you never know what happens in football.
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