Nemanja Lakic-Pesic was one of only three foreign players retained by Kerala Blasters ahead of the fifth edition of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) this year as the Kochi-based franchise opted to change their transfer policy. David James resorted to signing young players with the potential to develop rather than splurging the cash on household names, who would be considered the move to India as a happy-go-lucky retirement plan.
The 27-year-old was a central figure during Kerala Blasters' pre-season preparations both at home in the Toyota Yaris La Liga World tournament as well as on tour in Thailand. The defender admitted that the facilities in Thailand were outstanding and insisted that the players were working really hard to produce a much more aggressive mentality this year.
"First of all, Thailand was a really great experience for all of us," Lakic-Pesic told Sportskeeda during the Kerala Blasters' kit launching ceremony in Kochi.
"The facilities were very nice, very good and the training grounds were in very good shape and everything was really at the top level. Because of that, it was much easier for us players to do whatever the gaffer wanted from us.
"We were working very hard and we’re still working hard because we really want to win this trophy this year. Our goal is to win the trophy because you always play football to win, especially for our fans who give us the energy.
"I can promise you that this year we will be much more aggressive than last year, we will be more compact and we will go into every game with a very big desire to win," he added.
The Kerala Blasters have the youngest squad in the ISL this season with respect to average age of the 25-man squad and Lakic-Pesic claimed that he believes that age is not a huge factor in football if you are professional and willing to do the hard work in training.
The Serbian also suggested that a lot of the young players that have been promoted to the first team this year have impressed him in pre-season and have come on leaps and bounds in terms of progression and development.
"From what I have seen in pre-season, it was really good. The young players were surprising me and they were playing like they are much more experienced and they really are very mature," Lakic-Pesic told Sportskeeda.
"I think the age will not be an issue because it is not very important if you have the willingness to work hard. If you are giving one hundred percent then the age is not so important.
"I think they will be very good this season, I saw many young players from last year and they have progressed well, becoming much better players now than they were last season," he added.
The Manjappada creates an atmosphere bigger than Red Star fans: Lakic-Pesic
The towering Serbian, who stands at over 6 ft 3 in, was an influential figure at the heart of the Kerala Blaster's defence last year alongside club captain Sandesh Jhingan. Lakic-Pesic was capped by the Serbia U18 side back in 2007 and is a native of Belgrade, the home of the infamous Red Star Belgrade fans, who are widely regarded as one of the best group of supporters in Europe.
The defender went on to claim that the atmosphere at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium in Kochi is massive and that it can even outbid the raucous mentality of the Red Star Belgrade fans back in his homeland. Lakic-Pesic also admitted that it was a huge experience for him and the other newcomers in the team to witness something like that in their first game at home and added that he will never forget the intensity.
"It’s massive really [the atmosphere generated by the Manjappada]," Lakic-Pesic explained.
"I am from a country (Serbia) where we have Red Star (Belgrade) fans and a lot of people in Europe say that they are the best. Their fans are unbelievable and I played there like five times but honestly think that they cannot be compared with our fans here in Kerala because they (Manjappada) are making a really good atmosphere.
"I remember my first game last year against Kolkata, it is something I will not forget in my life, it was unbelievable. It’s a very good experience for me and everyone else involved we were really surprised because we never expected anything like this when we signed for the club.
"Even Wes Brown and Berba, they were like huge stars but they had not seen anything like this so and for sure they are, like they say, our 12th player," he added.
When you don't have challenges, you're not working hard - Lakic-Pesic
Despite the arrival of Anas Edathodika and Cyril Kali in defence, among other notable inclusions across various departments, Lakic-Pesic admitted that he is relishing the competition for places on offer at Kerala Blasters. The Serbian claimed that he loves the challenge of pushing his limits and added that it is the same for everyone in the team.
Lakic-Pesic also revealed that the Kerala Blasters have a lot of good players who are capable of filling in whenever required while also suggesting that the mood surrounding the camp is positive since they work together as a family and insisted that the atmosphere inside the camp is the primary aspect of becoming a champion side.
"That’s normal [the competition for places], I love when there is a challenge for it because when you don’t have a challenge then you’re not working good enough," Lakic-Pesic told Sportskeeda.
"So the challenge is bringing the best out of you and everyone wants to be the best so it’s very good to have it within the team.
"It’s not just about defence, we have every position well covered and if anyone doesn’t give his performance then there are other players, who are equally good, ready to take his place.
"The biggest strength this year is the atmosphere between us as a group with the players and the staff, we’re like a big family and it is very important. Actually, I think it’s the most important thing if you want to win the ISL. That comes first and then everything else," he added.
"I'm looking forward to it,": Lakic-Pesic on facing Tim Cahill
The Serbian admitted that he is looking forward to locking horns with the flagship signing of the year in the form of Tim Cahill when the Blasters face Jamshedpur FC and added that the preparation will be the same to face any player for that matter considering the growing reputation of the ISL and its additions.
"Of course, I look forward to play against any player for that matter because in every club you will have good players and I think the ISL is getting better and better with every passing year.
"It’s really good for India, Indian football and for all the people here. So yes, of course, I’m looking forward to playing against the big names," he added.
What is a realistic expectation for the Kerala Blasters this season?
Lakic-Pesic claimed that the Kerala Blasters will be aiming to bag the crown this year and will go out and play every game with a desire to win but, he also insisted that nothing is guaranteed in football and revealed that the primary objective will be to secure a top-four finish and try and do well in the playoffs to stand a chance in winning the final.
"Realistic expectation is that we make the playoffs this year and from there everything is possible but for sure our target is to try and win the ISL and I think we are capable of doing it.
"I’m confident that we are capable but in football, you never know so you cannot never say that we are going to win it but we will do our best to win it, we’ll see," he concluded.
When we asked him about who he thinks is the funniest player in the dressing room, Lakic-Pesic suggested that it would be Keziron Kizito and had a good laugh about it.
"Funniest player? Maybe Kizito, he is really funny. He can be really funny sometimes," he laughed.