Season Preview: Kerala Blasters FC look to live up to big expectations of fans

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Two-time Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) finalists, Kerala Blasters FC have fallen short of qualifying for the playoffs in their last three campaigns but will be hoping to live up to the expectations of their passionate fans in the new season. They will be optimistic heading into the new campaign with several changes to their squad as well as staff. Kibu Vicuna has been entrusted as their head coach for Hero ISL 2020-21 and his Kerala team have looked bright in pre-season, picking up a couple of wins in friendlies.

The Spaniard has already enjoyed success in Indian football and won the Hero I-League title last season with his team boasting the best defensive and attacking records in the division. Vicuna will be hoping to have a similar impact with Kerala Blasters in the upcoming campaign and has assembled a squad capable of challenging for a playoff finish, at the very least.

One of Kerala’s biggest drawbacks last season was a lack of depth in the squad that was exposed by injuries to key personnel. Vicuna and the Kerala management have looked to address this area of concern with the addition of quality signings. One such acquisition is Nishu Kumar, who won Hero ISL 2018-19 with Bengaluru FC. A versatile presence in defence, Nishu can play in any position across the backline, although he prefers to be in a fullback role. He along with Jessel Carneiro, who provided five assists for Kerala last season, are likely to be their first-choice fullback options.

Their defence also has two highly experienced foreigners in Bakary Kone and Costa Nhamoinesu, who together could tighten things at the back. Both players come with experience of playing at the highest level having represented clubs in the UEFA Champions League. Costa, in fact, was even Sparta Prague’s captain during their UEFA Europa League and Champions League campaigns and has the maximum appearances at the club by a foreign player.

Despite being relatively young, Kerala’s midfield looks like a solid unit with Vicuna roping in the likes of Ritwik Das, Yondrembem Denechandra, Rohit Kumar and Lalthathanga Khawlhring. The highly rated Nongdamba Naorem, who flourished under Vicuna in the Hero I-League last season, also returns to Kerala after a successful loan spell. Ayush Adhikari and Arjun Jayaraj are a couple more options for Kerala in midfield, making for a healthy competition for places in Vicuna’s starting XI among the domestic talents.

The young Indian midfielders will be complemented by the experience of Vicente Gomez as well as Sergio Cidoncha at the centre of the park. Cidoncha, who is the only foreigner retained by the club, is likely to don an attacking role, while Gomez will probably be given the responsibility of playing with a more defensive approach.

While the departure of their top-scorer from last season Bartholomew Ogbeche isn’t ideal, the signing of Gary Hooper will soften that blow. A clinical finisher with an eye for goal, the former Celtic striker joins the club with a winning mentality and has lifted the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Championship in the past, beside also playing in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League. His last stint saw him join A-League side Wellington Phoenix and he will be expected to share his experience and guide talented domestic players like Rahul KP and Sahal Abdul Samad.

On paper, Vicuna seems to have built a strong and deep squad that covers all bases. If the Blasters manage to keep themselves fit for the duration of the season, Kerala stand a chance to make it back into the top four, and perhaps even go the distance in what will be the biggest and most gruelling Hero ISL campaign yet.

Best Finish: Hero ISL runners-up in 2014 and 2016.

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Albino Gomes, Bilal Husain Khan, Prabhsukhan Singh Gill, Muheet Khan.

Defenders: Costa Nhamoinesu, Nishu Kumar, Bakary Kone, Jessel Carneiro, Sandeep Singh, Abdul Hakku, Lalruatthara

Midfielders: Sergio Cidoncha, Sahal Abdul Samad, Vicente Gomez, Seityasen Singh, Rahul KP, Givson Singh, Lalthathanga Khawlhring, Yondrembem Denechandra, Nongdamba Naorem, Arjun Jayaraj, Ayush Adhikari, Jeakson Singh, Prasanth Karuthadathkuni, Ritwik Das, Rohit Kumar

Forwards: Gary Hooper, Jordan Murray, Facundo Pereyra, Naorem Mahesh Singh, Shaiborlang Kharpan.

Fixtures:

Vs ATK Mohun Bagan FC – November 20

Vs NorthEast United FC – November 26

Vs Chennaiyin FC – November 29

Vs FC Goa – December 6

Vs Bengaluru FC – December 13

Vs SC East Bengal – December 20

Vs Hyderabad FC – December 27

Vs Mumbai City FC - January 2

Vs Odisha FC – January 7

Vs Jamshedpur FC – January 10

*Fixture list for Kerala Blasters FC till January 11

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