In the brief eight-year history of the Indian Super League (ISL), no team’s journey has been as dramatic as that of Kerala Blasters FC.
The Tuskers came agonizingly close to winning the title in 2014 and 2016, but were beaten by the erstwhile ATK FC on both occasions. While the title slipped through their grasp due to Mohammed Rafique’s injury-time goal in the inaugural season, they lost their second final against the Kolkata-based side 3-4 on penalties after both teams were locked at 1-1 at the end of extra time.
Kerala slumped to a lowly 10th position in the previous edition of the league, which had the club faithful writhing in pain. After experimenting with multiple coaches and footballers over the years, the Blasters have finally found an able manager in the Serbian Ivan Vukomanovic who has brought some stability to the system. Add to that the recruitment of top-notch foreigners and some fine Indian players, making it a formidable team who can down any opposition on their day.
The two-time finalists will have another shot at winning their elusive ISL title when they take on Hyderabad FC in the final at Fatorda’s PJN Stadium on Sunday evening.
However, the road to the summit clash has been anything but smooth for the Yellow Army this season. They went down 2-4 against last season’s runners-up ATK Mohun Bagan FC in the tournament opener and had to wait until the sixth match to register their first win. What a win it was as well! Riding goals from Sahal Abdul Samad, Alvaro Vazquez and Jorge Pereyra Diaz, the Blasters inflicted a 3-0 win over defending champions Mumbai City FC, which derailed the latter’s campaign.
Vukomanovic and co. also moved into the top spot in the midst of their 10-match unbeaten run, but lost a bit of momentum following a COVID-19 outbreak in the camp.
They eventually finished the league phase in the fourth spot with 34 points (nine wins, seven draws and four losses) and advanced to the playoffs after a five-year hiatus.
What has really stood out about this Blasters side is the healthy balance between their attack and defense. There’s a method to their madness this time around.
While Vazquez, Diaz, Sahal and captain Adrian Luna have shouldered most of their attacking duties and scored some scrumptious goals, KBFC’s defense comprising Marko Leskovic, Ruivah Hormipam, Bijoy Varghese and goalkeeper Prabhsukhan Gill has conceded fewer goals than ever. The result? They have kept eight clean sheets and ended the league phase with a positive goal difference for the first time in their history.
The synchronization between attack and defense helped the Blasters overcome League Shield winners Jamshedpur FC 2-1 on aggregate over the two-legged semi-finals. Sahal and Luna found the net in the two matches, but are doubtful for the final owing to injuries.
With a 100 per cent crowd attendance allowed for Sunday’s South Indian derby, members of the Majappada, KBFC’s crazy supporters’ group, are expected to throng the PJN Stadium and paint it yellow. Former Indian captain and Kerala football icon IM Vijayan also made his way to Goa on Saturday to witness history at Fatorda.
During the trip, the former striker gave an exclusive interview to Sportskeeda where he spoke on various topics related to KBFC’s ISL 2021-22 campaign. Here are the excerpts.
Q: Kerala Blasters had two shots at winning the ISL title in 2014 and 2016, but narrowly missed out on both occasions. How are you feeling before Sunday’s final?
Vijayan: Hyderabad will give us a tough challenge. They are a strong side with some proven match-winners. It’s going to be an exciting match. I’m quite tense at the moment [laughs].
Q: All the tickets for the final have been sold out and thousands of KBFC fans are expected to throng Fatorda’s PJN Stadium. Will that motivate the Blasters to perform even better?
Vijayan: It’s a great thing because fans will be allowed in the stadium after two years. They couldn’t see their beloved team play from the stands, so I’m sure the Manjappada will be super charged this time [laughs]! It will indeed give the players extra motivation because the whole stadium will be filled with Kerala supporters.
Q: Is the overseas quartet of Adrian Luna, Alvaro Vazquez, Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Marko Leskovic the driving force behind this KBFC team? Is KBFC’s overseas contingent the best in ISL-8?
Vijayan: For me, this overseas quartet is the best to have played for Kerala Blasters since the club’s inception. Indian players are ably assisting them. The reason behind the foreigners’ success is that they’ve all fitted into the team culture nicely.
It’s difficult to say if Kerala’s foreign contingent is the best in this season’s ISL or not because Hyderabad’s foreigners have also been exceptional. I think it’s going to be a closely contested match.
Q: While Hyderabad FC have Bartholomew Ogbeche and Javier Siverio, KBFC have Vazquez and Diaz. Who among them is your favorite attacker?
Vijayan: I’m a big fan of Luna! I’ll meet the players after the final.
Q: KBFC head coach Ivan Vukomanovic has already become a fan-favorite and endeared himself to all the players. What aspect of his coaching appeals to you the most?
Vijayan: The coach is the backbone of this team because the players have been playing well under him and respect him so much. See how he has brought out the best in Sahal [Abdul Samad].
Q: Sahal didn’t quite live up to the expectations in the previous editions of the ISL, but has been instrumental in KBFC’s journey to the final this season. If he can’t play the final, how much will his absence hurt KBFC and how big an advantage will it be for the opposition?
Vijayan: The previous coaches used Sahal in central midfield, so he couldn’t score a lot of goals. You’re seeing so many goals from him this season because Vukomanovic is deploying him in his natural position – attacking midfield.
In case Sahal can’t play the final, we’ve got great bench strength to make up for his absence. Hopefully, it won’t be a big problem.
Q: Who are your favorite Indian players from this KBFC side?
Vijayan: Jobby should sign for a team where he’ll get enough playing time instead of just running behind the money. Game time is more important than money because a team will pay you good money only if you play well and play regularly. I told him to stay at East Bengal when he was playing so well for them in the 2018-19 season. He had already settled in the team and would’ve got better offers from ISL teams had he continued playing for East Bengal for one more season.
Speaking of Liston, I’m very satisfied with his progress. But it’s too early to say if he can replace Sunil at the international level. Sunil has proved his worth whilst playing for both club and country. He’s a legend.
Q: This season’s ISL final will witness a South Indian derby. The two other teams from the South, Chennaiyin FC and Bengaluru FC, have been past champions. Do you think South India can replace Bengal and the Northeast as the new nerve center of Indian football within the next five years?
Vijayan: The final is going to be a great match and every South Indian is quite excited. I’m sure the success of these four teams will encourage many youngsters to take up the sport. However, I don’t think South India can replace either Bengal or Goa or the Northeast to become Indian football’s power center in the near future.
Q: If KBFC win the title, will you join the players in their celebration?
Vijayan: Let us win first. We’ll think about it later [guffaws]!
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