Hardworking and proactive, Ivan Vukomanovic's Kerala Blasters FC provide hopes of a brighter future

Kerala Blasters FC’s Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2021-22 campaign got off to the worst possible start as they were humbled by ATK Mohun Bagan. On that evening, the Blasters’ finishing and offensive play seemed sharp but they weren’t able to keep the Mariners at bay, meaning that they ended up conceding four goals.

A game later, Kerala Blasters FC looked much more solid at the back. This time, though, their final third play left a lot to be desired.

So, after two fixtures, the Blasters boasted a solitary point, with people beginning to wonder if anything had changed since the 2020-21 season – an edition where they finished 10th – only above Odisha FC. During that campaign, only the Odisha FC had shipped more than the 36 goals Kerala Blasters FC conceded.   

However, there were occasions in 2020-21 campaign when the Blasters looked capable of causing a flutter in the Hero ISL. Though they often failed to find the requisite consistency, such performances ensured that the Manjappada kept believing – even as they stuttered and stumbled at the start of this season.

Unsurprisingly, when Kerala Blasters FC arrived to lock horns with Mumbai City FC in the ongoing season at the PJN stadium in Margao, Goa, they were dubbed as underdogs. Not just because of how their campaign had transpired but also because how dominant the Islanders had been in the weeks leading upto the game.

Hardworking Blasters

To their fans’ amazement, though, the Blasters didn’t pay much heed to those perceptions. They could’ve easily retreated into their shells, allowed the defending champions the freedom of the Fatorda and of course, retreated to their 2020-21 roots. But they didn’t.

They hustled and harried Mumbai City FC at every opportunity and ensured that the latter didn’t have the time and the space to create anything substantial. While Kerala Blasters FC didn’t always press high up the pitch, they packed their midfield and pressed at the right moments – usually when one of Ahmed Jahouh or Apuia had possession.

Courtesy of their defensive actions, there were situations where the Islanders were outnumbered at the back – something that was magnified by the Blasters winning the ball relatively higher up the pitch.

The plaudits, rather understandably, were garnered by Alvaro Vazquez, Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Sahal Abdul Samad. But it was probably the Blasters’ hard-working habits that had made their job easier in the attacking third.

Before the match against Mumbai City FC, Kerala Blasters FC had stitched tougher a four-game unbeaten run – a streak that contained scrappy draws against Bengaluru FC, NorthEast United FC and SC East Bengal. That, though, also included a stunning display against Odisha FC – a game where they outclassed a relatively star-studded outfit.

During that encounter, the Blasters passed the ball with panache, created clear-cut openings, restricted the opposition to possession in non-dangerous areas and of course, ran themselves into the ground. In essence, the Blasters had, weeks before their contest against the defending champions, portrayed what their perfect blueprint would look like.

From that perspective, it was quite refreshing that they actually managed to do so against the Islanders and showcased the sort of conviction their fan base has been crying out for. Not only did the Blasters bag three points, they also laid down a marker for the rest of the Hero ISL.

A lot of their success has depended on how hard they have worked when not in possession. As things stand, Jeakson Singh finds himself in the top 10 for interceptions and tackles (7th and 6th respectively) made this season. The midfielder is also very efficient with the ball – illustrated by his presence in the top 15 of players to have made the most number of passes.   

In fact, Jeakson is only one of two Indians to be a part of the top 15, in terms of passes made, interceptions and tackles. The other player is Apuia, who has enjoyed a similar impact at Mumbai City FC.

Diaz and Vazquez have also been brilliant whenever unleashed in tandem. Both seem to have an exceptional understanding, whereas both aren’t afraid of putting in the hard defensive yards. Adrian Luna, who has been the Blasters’ most influential creator, is also not averse to covering every blade of grass, meaning that Kerala Blasters FC have been able to defend from the front.

Sublime Sahal

The most impressive aspect this season, though, has been Sahal’s form. The midfielder, who hadn’t scored since the 2018-19 iteration, already has a couple of goals to his name. Apart from that, he has shown an inclination to get into the box a lot more and track his runners.

They have been compact defensively too. Enes Sipovic, Harmanjot Khabra and Marko Leskovic have been sturdy since signing for the club, whereas Jessel Carneiro has grown in stature after being appointed captain. However, they would admit that they’ve benefited from the increased pressure their midfielders and forwards have applied.

Thus, with each passing game, it seems that Kerala Blasters FC might be onto something. At the start of the 2021-22 term, many of their fans feared that another campaign would transcend into disappointment. Now, with a couple of watershed victories in the bag, they might just start dreaming again.

In the past couple of seasons, performances such as the one against Mumbai City FC have been a feature. Yet, those have been followed by spells of inconsistency. This time, though, it seems that that might just become a bit of a norm.    

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