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ISL 2020-21: The road ahead for Kerala Blasters

Kerala Blasters have made shrewd additions to their squad this season
Kerala Blasters have made shrewd additions to their squad this season
FEATURED COLUMNIST
Modified 19 Nov 2020, 11:12 IST
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As has become the norm now, the Kerala Blasters will play the opener of the Indian Super League (ISL) season. In 2020, they will open with a clash against ATK Mohun Bagan at the GMC Stadium in Bambolim, which is their adopted home for this season.

As has been the case in recent seasons for Kerala Blasters, this one too has begun with a rebuild.

Since the beginning of the 2017-18 ISL season, Kibu Vicuna is the fifth head-coach to take charge of the Kerala Blasters, with the men from Kochi having gone through various styles of football in the last three seasons.

In some ways, Vicuna represents a sense of continuity from last year's style of football, developed by Eelco Schattorie.

Last season, after beating ATK 2-1 on the opening day of the season, Kerala Blasters went nine games without a win, before beating Hyderabad FC 5-1 in Kochi.

Injuries played their part in hampering Kerala Blasters's progress last season, especially in the centre-back area. Sandesh Jhingan missed the whole season, while Jairo Rodrigues was injured early on in the season, and had to be replaced by Vlatko Drobarov. In addition, Gianni Zuiverloon missed a few games as well, which meant that their options in central defence were threadbare.

With the addition of sporting director Karolis Skinkys, it looks like the Kerala Blasters are seeking to address an area that has plagued them in the last few years - their recruitment of foreigners.

That has meant an overhaul in the squad, with Sergio Cidoncha the only foreigner remaining from last season's squad.

Last season's captain Bartholomew Ogbeche has left the club to join Mumbai City FC, and has taken with him the constant goal threat that he brings. However, Kerala Blasters will believe that they have found an excellent replacement for Ogbeche in Englishman Gary Hooper.

Hooper once played for Celtic and Norwich City in top-tier European leagues, before plying his trade for the Wellington Phoenix in the A-League last season.

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Perhaps Vicuna's biggest strength, though, lies in the spine of this new Kerala Blasters side that he has built.

In captain Costa Nhamoinesu and Burkinabe Bakary Kone, the Blasters have a centre-back pairing brimming with experience and know-how from playing on the biggest stages in Europe. Nishu Kumar replaces the departed Mohammed Rakip, and alongside Jessel Carneiro, the former Bengaluru FC man forms one the league's better full-back pairings.

Vicente Gomez provides steel in midfield, and they have a proven goalscorer in Hooper. That is as strong a spine as Kerala Blasters have had in recent years.

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And then, you add the Indian talent in their squad to that spine, and there are the ingredients for a Kerala Blasters blockbuster this season.


Can Kibu Vicuna get the best out of Kerala Blasters star Sahal Abdul Samad?

Sahal Abdul Samad has a big season ahead of him (Image: ISL)
Sahal Abdul Samad has a big season ahead of him (Image: ISL)

Perhaps the biggest Indian star in the Kerala Blasters squad is local boy Sahal Abdul Samad. The faithful expect Sahal to influence every game he plays, they want him to be a star, they try to force performances out of him every time he steps on the pitch, sometimes if only be the sheer might of their will.

Sahal himself will be eager to prove that last season was an aberration. He started only nine matches under Schattorie last season, and managed just two assists.

It was hardly the kind of season that Kerala wanted out of its superstar, but it was a season that might have proved to the midfielder himself how difficult sustained success is in this environment.

It is now Vicuna's task to get the best out of Sahal, and make the midfielder the creative lynchpin of this side. The ability is unquestionable, but whether Sahal the mental reserves it takes to bounce back from a season like the last one remains to be seen.

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Young winger Nongdamba Naorem worked with Vicuna at Mohun Bagan last year, and is likely to be fighting for a spot on the flanks with his 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup team-mate Rahul KP.

A clutch of experienced international, with a smattering of preciously talented Indians around them, and a few India internationals looking to prove that last season was an aberration, talk about a squad with a perfect mix.

On paper, at least, there are plenty of reasons for Kerala Blasters fans to be excited about this season under Vicuna. But, as they know all too well, with their club, a false dawn has never been too far away.

Will 2020-21 be the making of the Kerala Blasters? Kibu Vicuna certainly would hope so.

Published 19 Nov 2020, 11:12 IST
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