Can Kerala Blasters FC mount a title challenge under Vukomanovic?

Kerala Blasters FC will look to quickly put behind the disappointment of last season when they finished 10th in the table as they begin the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2021-22 season with renewed optimism with a 28-player squad that includes six from Kerala.

The hope for a stronger season is driven by the appointment of Serbian coach Ivan Vukomanovic who is tasked with a sharp rebuild of the squad. Vukomanovic has vast experience of coaching in the premier divisions of Belgium, Slovakia, and Cyprus and will look to bring all that to play to elevate the Blasters this season and meet the demands of one of the fanbase that has backed the club through thick and thin. The 44-year-old is the eleventh different manager to take charge of the Blasters since 2014 and the eighth one who has been appointed in a full-time capacity.

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Will the Serbian guide the Blasters to a first-ever semi-final appearance since 2016? The Blasters faithful would hope that’s the case.

Here’s how the Blasters shape up:

Players To Watch Out For

The Blasters have looked to strengthen their defence with three key defensive signings: Ruivah Hormipan from RoundGlass Punjab, Enes Sipovic from Chennaiyin FC, and Marko Leskovic from Dinamo Zagreb.

Replacing Lalruatthara at left-back is Sanjeev Stalin, who is touted as one of the most talented players in India.

With the departures of Gary Hooper and Jordan Murray who have joined Wellington Phoenix and Jamshedpur FC respectively, Vukomanovic’s side have added two foreign forwards in Alvaro Vazquez and Jorge Diaz from Sporting de Gijon and Atletico Platense, respectively.

They have also roped in experienced Adrian Luna and Harmanjot Khabra to revamp their midfield.

Strengths:

With the experience of Vukomanovic, the Blasters will be looking to build a team that can’t be beaten easily. The new signings in defence and attack have provided a good balance to the Blasters’ squad. Stalin’s pace and agility, combined with Vazquez and Diaz’s attacking abilities, will give much needed impetus to their attack.

The experienced European signings will look to make an immediate impact in defence. Following a decent pre-season, Kerala Blasters’ defence might be one of their key strengths this season.

“Our target is to win and not allow anyone (to) beat us easily in the next game,” said Kerala Blasters FC’s Sporting Director Karolis Skinkys in an interview with the Times of India. “We start from basics which we were not able to do last year. Maybe we talk too much. Now is the time to be well organised and work very hard in each game. If you ask me about targets, it’s to be the hardest team to beat in the next game.”

Weaknesses:

The Blasters managed to keep only three clean sheets in a total of 20 games in the 2020-21 season and it’s an area where Vukomanovic will want to see improvement. Their away form also needs addressing as the Blasters won only one out of ten away games last season.

Notably, the Blasters also hold the record for the maximum number of draws (43). The Blasters have often failed to convert performances of supremacy into points, either missing chances to score or conceding late goals to lose points.

The challenge for Vukomanovic will also be about making sure his new players gel quickly and settle well in Indian football. Blasters’ fate this season will rest largely on how quickly their new signings adapt.

The Blasters will have to be sharper if they have to qualify for the semi-finals.

X-Factor:

Veteran midfielder Harmanjot will look to control the tempo of the game and his performances in the centre of the park will be key. The experience of Vukomanovic will also be important to this young squad that has young players with great potential like Sanjeev Stalin, Sahal Abdul Samad whose potential if unlocked can make the Blasters a formidable outfit.

Best Finish:

Runners-up (2014, 2016)

Battle To Watch

Sunday, 28th November: vs Bengaluru FC
This South Indian derby has witnessed goals in each outing, with Bengaluru getting the better of the Blasters on 5 out of 8 occasions. The last time these two sides met, Bengaluru FC were on the losing side in a game that ended 2-1 at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium.

Wednesday, 22nd December: vs Chennaiyin FC
The Marina Machans have a better record against the Blasters with 6 wins out of 16 matches. Notably, these two have locked horns seven times. The last outing saw a stalemate of 1-1 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

Friday, 19th November, 2021

ATK Mohun Bagan

Kerala Blasters FC

Thursday, 25th November, 2021

Northeast United FC

Kerala Blasters FC

Sunday, 28th November, 2021

Bengaluru FC

Kerala Blasters FC

Sunday, 5th December

Kerala Blasters FC

Odisha FC

Sunday, 12th December, 2021

SC East Bengal

Kerala Blasters FC

Sunday, 19th December, 2021

Mumbai City FC

Kerala Blasters FC

Wednesday, 22nd December, 2021

Chennaiyin FC

Kerala Blasters FC

Sunday, 26th December, 2021

Kerala Blasters FC

Jamshedpur FC

Sunday, 02nd January, 2021

Kerala Blasters FC

FC Goa

Sunday, 09th January, 2021

Kerala Blasters FC

Hyderabad FC

All matches will be played at 7:30pm IST.

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Albino Gomes, Prabhsukhan Singh Gill, Muheet Shabir, Sachin Suresh

Defenders: Sandeep Singh, Nishu Kumar, Abdul Hakku, Hormipam Ruivah, Bijoy V, Enes Sipovic, Marko Lešković, Denechandra Meitei, Sanjeev Stalin, Jessel Carneiro

Midfielders: Jeakson Singh, Harmanjot Khabra, Ayush Adhikari, Givson Singh, Lalthathanga Khawlhring, Prashant K, Vincy Barretto, Sahal Abdul Samad, Seityasen Singh, Rahul K P, Adrian Luna

Strikers: Chencho Gyeltshen, Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Álvaro Vázquez

It’s time for Kerala Blasters to get their act together this season, as they start their campaign against ATK Mohun Bagan on November 19 which is also the opening fixture of the Hero ISL 2021-22 season.

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