Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters FC fought tooth and nail in the final of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2021-22 season in Goa and it was only the lottery of the penalty shootout that decided the contest in Hyderabad FC’s favour. 

A little short of eight months from the night in Fatorda when Laxmikant Kattimani’s heroics in goal proved to be the difference between the two sides, Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters FC meet again in a new season, in a fresh setting and with slightly different realities. 

The 2021-22 final saw the return of the fans in some capacity for the first time in over two seasons which was the first step towards the packed stadiums that we are witnessing in the Hero ISL this season. 

Hyderabad FC playing in front of their own fans at the GMC Balayogi stadium for just the second season have already established a sort of a fortress there winning all matches at the venue this season. 

Last season’s runners-up Kerala Blasters FC will test the defending champions’ perfect home record but it will be the home side that will start as favourites. 

Ivan Kaliuzhnyi’s impact

Ivan Vukomanovic’s side pushed Hyderabad FC all the way in the final and were minutes away from beating them in regulation time but as they prepare to take on the defending champions on their own patch, they arrive in Hyderabad four places and seven points adrift of the league leaders in the table. 

Kerala Blasters FC have found reaching last season’s levels slightly harder this season with the team still digesting the few yet significant changes that the summer transfer window brought about. 

The yellow army lost Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Alvaro Vazquez, Enes Sipovic and Prasanth K and replaced them with Apostolos Giannou, Dimitrios Diamantakos, Ivan Kaliuzhnyi and Victor Mongil. 

While the idea was for these players to slot into the exact roles of the players they were replacing, it’s still in transition with Kaliuzhnyi hitting the ground running in the Hero ISL. 

The Ukrainian midfielder is the top goalscorer in Hero ISL with four goals to his name and it has forced Vukomanovic to tweak his ways. These changes have meant the Blasters have struggled to perform at their best levels in all matches. 

“Kerala Blasters FC haven’t fully settled yet. Only now, after six games, we are seeing a different approach and that's down to Vukomanovic tweaking the tactics which turned over FC Goa at home in the last fixture,” former Hero ISL midfielder who is now a commentator and expert noted. 

“In the past, they were heavily reliant on Diaz and Vazquez to finish off the play and get the team up the pitch. A combination of form, availability and the emergence of Ivan Kaliuzhnyi has thrown a spanner into Vukomanovic's tactical approach,” he added. 

The Serbian head coach who started Kaliuzhnyi from the bench in the first match having brought in more as a defensive midfielder was surprised by the attacking thrust that he has provided. It has forced him to accommodate him into his starting XI and change the way the Blasters have played. 

“The big Ukrainian has been a stand-out but it means the disruption of the foreseen plan of using Diamantakos and Giannou up top. They were brought in as the 2 up top to replace Diaz and Vazquez and Kaliuzhnyi would maybe have been an afterthought,” Paartalu said. 

“He is now firmly in the middle of the park and the top goal scorer not just of his side but the league,” he added. 

The new shape has also made Blasters more defensively stable and has allowed some of their creative players more freedom. The Kochi outfit have improved defensively in their last three matches, letting in just three goals as compared to eight in their first three matches. 

“Rahul KP and Sahal Abdul Samad are getting better with each passing week and the Blasters' shape looks to be a lot tighter now, sitting in and conserving energy, rather than going as hard as they can for as long as they can,” Paartalu said. 

Confident Hyderabad FC

As for Hyderabad FC, new signings have been limited but they have fitted into the scheme of things seamlessly, be it Odei Onaindia in defence or Borja Herrera in the attack. 

The arrival of Herrera, the form of Javier Siverio and injury to Joel Chianese has meant Manolo Marquez has also had to tweak things but his experiments have yielded instant success. 

“Hyderabad FC have had to use Bartholomew Ogbeche in the No 10 position more often than the No 9 position and that is largely down to Siverio growing and gaining a larger responsibility up top and with the likes of Chianese being unavailable in the first few games. Marquez needed to be smart with the usage of the foreign attacking options,” Paartalu said. 

Also Read: Continuity and coaching: How Hyderabad FC have forged an impregnable defence

Another key factor in Hyderabad FC’s success in the season so far has been familiarity with the coach’s philosophy and the players in the squad. The champions are now in their third season under Marquez as compared to the Blasters who have just begun their second campaign under the Serbian. 

This has allowed Hyderabad FC to be a lot more assured of themselves and it reflects in the manner of their wins. Despite scoring 1-0 wins, Hyderabad FC have looked comfortable and in control. 

“Tactically they are very comfortable having the ball and keeping the ball at any score line. The games that have ended 1-0 have been dominant in terms of scoring 1 goal and defending well enough as a group to see the result through,” Paartalu said. 

“They have confidence in their gameplan and they execute it, no matter who is on the pitch,” he added. 

Despite the contrasting start to the league for the two teams, the match on Saturday remains an intriguing prospect. It pits the league’s joint second potent attack in Kerala Blasters FC against the league’s meanest defence. 

Hyderabad FC’s home form will probably give them the edge in the contest but the Blasters who fare better on the road than at home having recorded 25 out of their 45 wins in Hero ISL history on their travels, may thrive with all the pressure being on the home side. 

There will be no trophy to be won at the end of this match for either team but the three points could significantly impact the directions their respective seasons could take. 

Another home win for Hyderabad FC against the team that ran them so close in the final last year could give them an air of invincibility while three points for Blasters at arguably the toughest place to visit in the Hero ISL right now, could set the wheels in motion for Vukomanovic’s new-look side. A feast awaits in Hyderabad!