Kerala Blasters are undoubtedly one of the ISL (Indian Super League) teams which carry with them a huge weight of expectations regardless of the composition of the squad or the form of the side.
And that is primarily because of their passionate supporter base in Kerala. These supporters who have football ingrained in their culture, have found an outlet for their passion through the support of their team.
This season, with the league taking place behind closed doors, they will not get a chance to see their team in action from the stands. But the players know that all eyes will be on them as they seek to improve on the disappointment of last season in which Kerala Blasters finished a lowly ninth in the table.
Here, we analyze how Kerala Blasters are shaping up ahead of the new season.
Kerala Blasters have put together a squad with a strong identity under former Mohun Bagan coach Kibu Vicuna this season. The young Indian players are fearless and play with great freedom, while the defensive core of the side consists of experienced foreigners, who add resolve and quality to the side.
Take for example the likes of Rahul KP, Jeakson Singh and Nongdamba Naorem. Rahul has already impressed in pre-season, and looks like a player who is ready to take his game to the next level. Jeakson Singh had his best ISL season yet in the last edition, and is fast becoming a reliable option in midfield. And Nongdamba Naorem is one of the trickiest young wingers in the country. He was a mainstay last season in Kibu Vicuna's Mohun Bagan, and is a player whom he knows very well.
The presence of these youngsters is sure to ensure that Kerala Blasters play an attractive style of football. Someone like Gary Hooper is likely to score a lot of goals if he is given adequate service.
While attacking, Kerala Blasters full-backs are likely to bomb up the wing, and the triumvirate of Bakary Kone, Costa Nhaimonesu and Vicente Gomez right ahead of them will ensure that the team doesn't lose balance and stability. On paper, Kerala Blasters do indeed look like one of the most balanced teams in the league.
While Kerala Blasters' strength lies in their unpredictability, it is also a weakness at the same time. As it is with any other side, it will take time for the players to understand each others' movements on the pitch and build a chemistry.
Apart from Hooper, the Blasters don't have a striker who is of great caliber, and who can come in if Hooper gets injured.
Additionally, while the defense looks like it will take some getting past, an injury to either of Kone or Nhaimonesu could potentially derail them, as they don't have too much depth in that position. Abdul Hakku is a third choice center-back, and in times of absolute necessity, Nishu Kumar can play in that position as well. The concerning bit however, is the sharp drop in quality inthe center-back positions. This is one issue that Kerala Blasters may need to adapt to at some point in the season.
The first name that springs to mind is former Celtic and Norwich City forward, Gary Hooper. Hooper has scored over 200 goals in his decade-long professional career. The Englishman comes alive in the box, and is one of those strikers who just knows where the back of the net is.
He has scored 21 goals in 54 games since 2017-18, out of which 16 goals have been one-touch finishes. With Naorem and Rahul KP on either side of him, expect the Englishman to flourish.
Vicente Gomez is another player extremely crucial to the Kerala Blasters' setup. The amount of trust the franchise has in him can be gauged by the fact that he is the only player in the squad to be given a three-year contract.
A journeyman from Spain who has played against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, the defensive midfielder has undoubted quality and is crucial to the Blasters' chances this season.
And finally, we have Sahal Abdul Samad. Despite it currently being uncertain if Sahal will start every game for Kerala Blasters, if he is on the pitch for a brief amount of time, he is sure to carve out a few chances for the players ahead of him.
Due to the many attacking players that Kerala Blasters have for Sahal to be a regular starter, coach Vicuna will have to have enough faith in him to play with a two-man central midfield. But we wouldn't put it past Sahal to rise to the challenge and cement a regular spot in the Kerala Blasters team.
Prediction for the season
The expectations around Kerala Blasters are always high, and it is no different this time around.
Last season, they men in yellow were just unable to find the winning combination. In the matches where they played well, they conceded cheap goals, and were often unable to win the individual battles on the pitch.
This time, with the blend of youth and experience that they have, and most importantly, a coach like Kibu Vicuna who knows how to get the best out of his players, the Blasters have a great chance of going through a successful season.
If Costa and Kone remain fit for the entire season, the Blasters will at least have defensive solidity to rely on, even if their attacking combination does not click. And if it does, there will be very few teams in the league who will be as attractive to watch as the Blasters.
We predict Kerala Blasters to finish in a top-four position this season and make the playoffs. What happens after that, is entirely up to how each team plays on the day.Published 11 Nov 2020, 16:21 IST