ISL 2019-20: Can Eelco Schattorie rejuvenate Kerala Blasters?
Helming the lowest-budget team in the previous season of Indian Super League, Eelco Schattorie took NorthEast United FC into the playoffs for the first time in their five short years of existence. This time, he has been tasked to do something similar but with a team that has the most vociferous crowd support in Kerala Blasters.
The Blasters had a catastrophic season last time around. They signed David James on a long-term contract but went into a 11-match winless streak after beating ATK in the season opener. The frustrated fans decided to boycott the home games and the Englishman got the sack. But his replacement Nelo Vingada proved to be of little help as they mustered only one win in his tenure.
The management turned their focus to Schattorie, hoping he could revive their fortunes. Knowing that the squad needed a capable striker to lead from the front, he brought along Bartholomew Ogbeche and made him the captain. Foreigners who proved their mettle in the previous ISL season like Mario Arques, Sergio Cidoncha, and Gianni Zuiverloon soon followed. The acquisition of Raphael Messi Bouli, Mouhamadou Moustapha Gning, and Jairo Rodrigues completed their foreign quota, which looks far better on paper than their previous ones.
Staying true to his words, Schattorie signed players who had a "Kerala heart" like Shibinraj Kunniyal, TP Rehenesh, Mohammed Rafi, and Rahul KP. Fan favourites Sahal Abdul Samad and Sandesh Jhingan signed a long-term contract whereas Jeakson Singh and Samuel Lalmuanpuia injected young blood into it.
The heart of the matter
But, the problem in Kerala Blasters lies within itself. The pre-season tour in UAE got cut short after their sponsors backed out alleging a breach of contract, resulting in lack of quality oppositions. They have defeated I-League second division side South United FC, Kerala Santosh Trophy team, and its Reserve team but lost to Real Kashmir despite dominating possession.
Schattorie is yet to figure out his back-line with Jairo Rodrigues, Gianni Zuiverloon, and the latest of all, Sandesh Jhingan, nursing injuries. Reports indicate Jhingan will miss the entire ISL and if the other two don't recover in time, Schattorie will be forced to field an all-Indian back-line in the opening stages, something which he isn't fond of. Facing ATK, that has A-League top scorer Roy Krishna in their ranks, in the season opener, only aggravates his situation further.
Schattorie likes to use the wings, meaning new recruit Seityasen Singh and Halicharan Narzary will be bombarding the opposition with crosses. Kerala Blasters only had Sahal Abdul Samad as their creative midfielder but Sergio Cidoncha would be there to help him out this season.
Defensive midfielder Mouhamadou Moustapha Gning is the surprise element in the squad and would likely act as a shield ahead of the back-four, a role which Jose Leudo perfected last season with Northeast United FC.
The strength of Kerala Blasters lie in their striking department. Slavisa Stojanovic and Matej Poplatnik shared only eight goals amongst themselves in the last season whereas
An injury to the Nigerian derailed Northeast United's chances in the playoffs. To ensure Kerala Blasters don't face the same problem this season, Schattorie has kept Raphael Messi Bouli as a back-up, a Cameroonian international who has plied his trade in China League One and Persian Gulf Pro League.
With tailor-made foreign signings to suit his tactics and a moderate Indian squad to complement them, Schattorie knows precisely the strengths and weaknesses of his team. Only time will tell if it is enough to rejuvenate Kerala Blasters in the 2019-20 season of ISL and lead them to glory.