Kerala Blasters had disappointing outings in the last two seasons, finishing ninth in 2018-19 and seventh in 2019-20 on the Indian Super League (ISL) table. Although the previous season might have been a slight improvement, the Blasters have had little option but to go for an overhaul in their club operations and the way they play their football.
The club turned to Spaniard Kibu Vicuna to take over from Eelco Schattorie, the Dutchman who had previously led NorthEast United FC to the playoffs for the first time in their history. Despite not being a 'big name' manager, Vicuna comes into the ISL with some experience of coaching in India, having won the 2019-20 I-League title with Mohun Bagan. Vicuna's Bagan side might not have completed the entire season, but when the league was suspended, the Mariners were 16 points ahead of second-placed East Bengal.
The Spaniard's arrival in the Kerala Blasters camp was met by the departure of their star player Sandesh Jhingan. The 27-year-old Indian defender was reportedly courted by several European clubs, with a few rumors linking him to a few top-flight English Premier League clubs as well. However, the pandemic ensured that Jhingan would eventually make the move to new entrants, ATK Mohun Bagan.
Kerala Blasters' Spanish midfielder Sergio Cidoncha was the only overseas player to have been retained by the club as the likes of Bartholomew Ogbeche, Matej Poplatnik, Slaviša Stojanovic, Gianni Zuiverloon, and Mario Arqués all went in search of new clubs to play for. Halicharan Narzary and TP Rehenesh also departed the club, leaving Karolis Skinkys and Kibu Vicuna no choice but to recruit players from both India and abroad.
Kerala Blasters: Recruiting Indian talent
Having been an integral part of the first team last season, left-back Jessel Carneiro signed a contract extension with the club until the 2023 season. Seityasen Singh, Rahul KP, Prasanth K, Abdul Hakku, and Sahal Abdul Samad all followed suit by signing extensions with the club.
Following his release from Bengaluru FC, Nishu Kumar became a highly sought-after commodity in the ISL. The 23-year-old was quickly snapped up by the Kerala Blasters in a four-year deal that saw him hold the distinction of the highest-paid defender in the league for a short span of time.
Ritwik Das, Denechandra Meitei, Givson Singh, and Sandeep Singh arrived from the I-League. Rohit Kumar, Puitea and Prabhsukhan Singh Gill arrived from Hyderabad FC, NorthEast United FC and Bengaluru FC respectively. Having built a core of Indian players in the squad, the Kerala Blasters management now looked to fill the six overseas spots on the roster.
Bringing in the big overseas names
Facundo Pereyra was the first to arrive from Cyprus. Although he is not the most recognizable of the lot, the 33-year-old Argentine has been known for his pace and trickery on the ball.
The signing of 32-year-old Spaniard Vicente Gomez however, was met with joy and celebration among the Kerala Blasters faithful. Gomez had spent the better part of the last decade with Spanish side Las Palmas having played against the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and several other big names. Gomez also comes in as a versatile option for Vicuna as he can play anywhere across the central defensive and central midfield positions.
Gary Hooper, once courted by several top-flight English Premier League clubs, became the next signing for the Kerala Blasters from A-League side Wellington Phoneix. Hooper comes into the ISL with a phenomenal goal-scoring record to his name in Scotland and Australia. The 32-year-old has also been fairly successful in the pre-season friendlies so far.
Former Zimbabwe international Costa Nhamoinesu and former Lyon central-defender Bakary Kone filled up the next two overseas slots for the Kerala Blasters. In terms of defending, both players are pretty solid. 34-year-old Costa has been touted by many to captain the Kerala Blasters for the upcoming season. Bakary Kone, on the other hand, is yet to join the squad.
Australian forward Jordan Murray claimed the final spot on the roster, a slot that is generally reserved for a player with an AFC (Asian Football Confederation) affiliation. Murray is expected to be used by Vicuna as a 'Super Sub' for the upcoming season.
On paper, Kibu Vicuna has a strong squad most of whom are new signings. However, it remains to be seen how he can use this squad to better the performances from the last two seasons and secure a playoff spot at the very least.
Kerala Blasters Predicted XI: Bilal Khan, Nishu Kumar, Bakary Kone, Costa Nhamoinesu, Jessel Carneiro, Rahul KP, Vicente Gomez, Sahal Abdul Samad, Seityasen Singh, Facundo Pereyra, Gary Hooper