Only one slot remains to decide the 4th team of the Indian Super League this season. Mumbai City FC, Delhi Dynamos and Atletico de Kolkata have already booked their berths. The last spot is going to be a stiff contest between NorthEast United FC and Kerala Blasters FC. A point separates the two and it will be a winner takes it all match when they meet on Sunday. A draw would be sufficient though for the Yellow Army but the Highlanders would go all out for a win.
Kerala Blasters FC have hit the right notes consistently this season. They have won more matches than third-placed Atletico. Why is it then that they need to wait until the last day to decide their fate?
Turns out, inadvertent errors and some sheer misfortune have turned the road bumpy for Steve Coppell’s boys. The absence of a few key players before crucial ties has hurt the team on numerous occasions.
Kerala has a team comprising of the likes of a number of Indian nationals. In defence, Rino Anto and Sandesh Jhingan were supposed to be the mainstays of the team. In the attack, CK Vineeth is another Indian power figure who has had a key role to play. But the club duties of these players in the AFC Cup hampered the momentum of the team. They missed a number of key ties and the Blasters suffered as a result.
In the backline, the four pillars of Josu, Aaron Hughes, Cedric Hengbart and Sandesh Jhingan has fostered a close-knit unit. Consequently, till their second last game, this defensive lineup boasted of a clean sheet between them. Under the bar, former Arsenal man Graham Stack provided the support to the experienced defence.
Josu is the key man in the left wing of the Kerala team. His meandering runs down the channels has provided the fillip for the excellent wing play from Kerala. Free kicks are another significant facet of his repertoire.The tall figures of Aaron Hughes, Hengbart and Jhingan were a miserly lot as they snuffed out attacks with ease. Long balls hardly created any trouble for the towering defenders. Recently, in the match against Atletico, the Spanish coach failed to realise this and Iain Hume was harrowed by the Kerala backline.
But this defensive formation took time to settle as the coach was in the hunt for the perfect back four. Consequently, the team conceded a number of goals with a 0-5 hammering against Mumbai City FC.
A strong central midfield
In midfield, Mr. Dependable of Indian football, Mehtab Hossain has formed the backbone. His snatching abilities and incisive crosses add an edge to the Blasters midfield. He has been a regular for the side since the first season. With swathes of experience, Mehtab has been the go-to man for Coppell during exigencies.
In the central defensive midfield role, the coach has experienced with the likes of Elhadji Ndoye and Azrack Mahamat along with Ishfaq Ahmed. This mix-and-match formula has yielded mixed success for the English coach. Ishfaq, being on the wrong side of 30, has not been able to provide any glimpse of his earlier blistering pace. His role has been mostly limited to a single half as the coach preferred to replace him with a quicker player. Ndoye has formed a resolute partnership with Mehtab in the central midfield role.
He is quick, agile and has a fair understanding of the game. His defensive abilities, coupled with an astute passing sense, make him a useful asset in both offence and defence.
CK Vineeth’s arrival reignites the forward line
Upfront, CK Vineeth has stolen the show singlehandedly. He has been a constant threat to the burliest of the defenders in the ISL 2016. His deceptive pace has often rendered the man to man marking ploy ineffective. Along with pace, he has the strength to manoeuvre away from onrushing defenders. In only 4 appearances he has netted 4 goals this year.
Be it the foreign defenders or his domestic counterparts, Vineeth has outshone all of them with aplomb. He has been utilised in the wings too by coach Coppell. But it is the centre forward role where has found his best form.
Another name to reckon with in the strike force would be Kervens Belfort. The 24-year old Haitian has found his peak in the wings. Cutting in from inside, Belfort has been a menace for the wing backs. His quick turns have often led to countless fouls from the defence. He has pace and can dribble past defenders effortlessly.
Mohammed Rafi, who played for champions Atletico de Kolkata in the inaugural season has not been able to provide much teeth to the Kerala attack. He has an exceptional presence in the air, but on ground, he has been quite ineffective thus far. Being a local lad, Rafi was expected to contribute to the Kerala side in a much better manner. But that has not been the case with the striker. Consequently, he has been deployed in the wings mostly. It would be up to the 34-year old to make amends and help his team reach the playoffs.
Steve Coppell should not have much to complain, but for that one match against Mumbai. With the last match to decide the fourth place, it should motivate his players to go for the kill. A brilliant team effort could even see them go all the way. But the attacking third has to function effectively to produce better results.
More Indian Football news, transfer rumours, analysis and features at Sportskeeda.com