Kerala Blasters FC are on the verge of setting a new club record before they take on Bengaluru FC away in Matchweek 19 of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2022-23 at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, in Bengaluru, on Saturday.

The finalists of the Hero ISL 2021-22 have picked up right from where they left off. The Blasters already have more wins and are also on the brink of equalling their points tally of last season, being shy of just three points.

Placing their faith in the head coach Ivan Vukomanovic by signing a new contract extension, the Blasters have been immensely rewarded under his system and have been playing an attractive brand of football, something that was amiss in the club’s recent years.

Positioned third in the league standings with 31 points, Vukomanovic’s men have picked up 10 wins, six losses, and one draw in 17 games. While they are nearing the finish line of reaching the playoffs, three critical fixtures against Bengaluru FC (away), ATK Mohun Bagan (away), and Hyderabad FC (home) await them.

In their pursuit of securing the desired playoff spot, the Blasters face a litmus test in their upcoming assignment against Bengaluru FC, who are flying high with a five-game winning streak. While they did overcome their southern rivals in a feisty 3-2 victory in the reverse fixture at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi, the scenario has a totally different look this time around besides the fascinating rivalry that the two teams share.

However, the Blues hold an edge over the Tuskers in the overall head-to-head record between these two teams. Having faced each other in 11 different encounters, BFC have come out on top six times while KBFC have tasted victory just thrice, with the remaining two fixtures ending up in draws.

Struggling away record

The Kochi-based side have struggled to win matches away from home. They have lost three away matches on the spin and are winless in their last four away matches. Looking at the bigger picture, the Blasters have won 10 games this season, of which seven wins have come at home. They have only three wins in eight matches away from home, indicating their poor run of form on the road this season.

Hero ISL expert Erik Paartalu feels the Blasters need to iron out their mistakes and be prepared to dig deep to seal the win against Bengaluru FC.

“Kerala Blasters FC’s away form hasn’t been great this last month or so. If they finish third or fourth, which I think they will, playing at home is no trouble. But going away and grinding a result out, maybe this will be a good dress rehearsal for them. They need to go to Bengaluru with full focus on getting a good defensive performance and regaining their confidence,” Paartalu states.

Hero ISL expert Paul Masefield highlights how the side has the potential to stop the pacey Bengaluru FC and turn the fixture into a compelling contest with both sides equally involved.

“Kerala Blasters FC can stop them, but for that, they need everybody to be in the game, they have to be all at their 100% and make no silly individual errors. When they get going forwards with the likes of (Adrian) Luna and (Dimitrios) Diamantakos, they can score goals as well. So, it should be an absolute cracking and a real open game of football because both sides would be desperate to take the three points,” says Masefield.

The Leskovic factor

The Yellow Army have been missing the presence of central defender Marko Leskovic in the backline. Known for his leadership, vocality, and mentality, Leskovic holds the fort in the back four and has been pivotal in all the games this season. The defender has missed the last five games due to an injury, which has pried open the KBFC backline and left it vulnerable for opposition teams to exploit. Victor Mongil, who has been brought in as the replacement for the injured Leskovic, has not been able to effectively handle the responsibility as the central defender, with the team showing signs of fragility at the back.

From a statistical standpoint, the Blasters have been better with Marko Leskovic in the backline. With the Croatian, the side have eight wins, one draw, and three losses in 12 games this season. Defensively, they have kept four clean sheets and conceded 15 goals, which comes down to 1.3 goals per game.

Alternatively, without Leskovic, the side hasn't been able to manage a blockade efficiently. In the presence of Mongil, the side have two wins and three losses in five games. They have kept just one clean sheet and shipped in nine goals in those five matches, which comes down to 1.8 goals per game.

Masefield believes the team is lacking the role of leadership not just in the backline but in the entire game, which wasn’t the case some games back.

“I think the biggest problem Kerala Blasters FC recently have had is Marko Leskovic being out of the backline. That’s really affected and hurt them because he’s such a big and strong leader in the back four. I can see them conceding more goals this season until he comes back into the starting lineup and has the settled lineup that Ivan Vukomanovic likes to have,” he adds.

Moreover, this fixture has never seen Kerala Blasters FC win a single game at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. They have also not kept a clean sheet against Bengaluru FC in the history of the Hero ISL. While it does sound like a Herculean task for the Blasters to surpass, it will have to be without their key personnel Leskovic.
Paartalu believes the Blasters should focus on scoring goals and winning the game without paying heed to keep a clean sheet vis-à-vis conceding goals.

“I don't think clean sheets are that important if you are winning. For the Blasters, this game can be more like a cowboy shoot out where they can shoot and take risks and not worry so much about protecting their back line. They will want to get into the habit of conceding as little as possible for the playoffs, but until Leskovic returns, I feel they are under threat to concede a goal in each game,” he says.

Bengaluru FC have been in a terrific run of form, and to beat them, the Vukomanovic-coached side need to be at their clinical best, with no room for error. A win for either side will be a significant stride in their respective chase for the playoff spot. Masefield points out how any side can tilt the game at any given moment.

“I think Benglauru FC are absolutely flying at the moment. Kerala Blasters FC need to try and shore things up a little bit more. I think we might see Ivan Kaliuzhnyi play a little bit deeper, Jeakson Singh’s going to be vital in this game as well to try and stop Bengaluru FC because they seem to have hit their timing just right. Going forwards, they’ve got pace, they’ve got ability, they get into good areas, they deliver good quality into the box which is why they have been scoring goals and winning games,” Masefield concludes.

The match-up of the two southern rivals has always been a frenzy affair on the pitch as well as outside of it. Come Saturday, the two teams are bound to crop up a compelling game of football, with the outcome going beyond the three points.