Hyderabad FC head coach Manolo Marquez has urged his players to be prepared to face a determined Kerala Blasters FC side as they take a trip down south to conclude the league stage of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2022-23 season at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, in Kochi, on Sunday.

The reigning Hero ISL champions have already secured a semi-final spot and will have to play the waiting game to know their semi-final opponents. However, their opponents, Kerala Blasters FC, are still in the lookout for a top-four spot, and a win in the upcoming game is their best shot of earning them the home advantage in the playoffs. 

Having conceded three goals for only the second time this season following a 2-3 defeat against Jamshedpur FC in their previous encounter, Marquez urged his players to show intent in their final game of the league stage. 

“We have to play this game (with the intention of winning). After the defeat against Jamshedpur FC, we need to finish (the league stage) with good feelings. The opponents in our semi-final will now play their last game or have played their league game in their regular season and will play another game (in the playoffs), a hard game, to qualify. Then, for sure, the opponent will arrive in very good conditions. There may be physical problems, but at least in terms of mentality, in terms of how they'll train the team, our opponents will be in very good conditions,” Marquez stated in the official pre-match press conference.

The Spaniard highlighted how his team needs to maintain their level and give their opponents a tough fight, which will help them keep steady to face their opponent in the semi-final.

“We have to be at least at the same level as our opponents on our side because we need to train hard, we need to play a good game against Kerala Blasters, and then we'll practically have another 10 days to prepare for the game and see who the opponents are and try to qualify for the final. This is our target,” he said.

The Blasters reached the playoffs for a second consecutive season, the first time in the club’s history. Currently on a six-game winning run at home, the Blasters would be aiming to go full throttle to maximise their chances of getting the home advantage in the playoffs by finishing in the top four. Marquez commended the intelligence of his Kerala Blasters FC counterpart, Ivan Vukomanovic, and felt that they would make the most of their home advantage.

“If you remember last season, in the last game, they were (going to finish) fifth - (they qualified) because we won against Mumbai City FC the previous day - and when they were losing 4-2 against FC Goa, the head coach put two players with three yellow cards in the line-up - Alvaro Vazquez and I don't remember the other. But, finally the score was 4-4,” he said.

“They will be looking to win, because, if they win, they will play at home. So, of course, they will play their first team. But even if they finish fifth, which is the maximum they can finish, they would want to win. Ivan (Vukomanovic) is a winner in these kinds of situations and for sure that he would want to win in front of the Kerala fans, so they will try to win. I think they will play their main team,” he added.

One of the only four teams to beat Hyderabad FC, the Tuskers won the reverse fixture in Hyderabad, courtesy of a solitary goal from Dimitrios Diamantakos. With a win in the upcoming fixture, Ivan Vukomanovic’s men can become the first team to do a double over Hyderabad FC this season. The Spaniard shared his thoughts on the results of the reverse fixture, and felt the upcoming game in Kochi will be a close contested one. 

“We didn’t deserve to lose that game, it was an equal game. I think the fair score was a draw, but we conceded a goal that we could have avoided but this is football and they defended with a lot of order and even then we had some clear chances. If the game remains on level for a long time then it will be a close game, but if one team scores, obviously the other team will attack and then it will be an open game. I think it'll be a good game as there will be a lot of people in the stadium, this is very good for the players. Kerala Blasters FC vs Hyderabad FC have delivered good games in the last few seasons,” he said.

The Spaniard also addressed the quality of certain players in the opposition team and was admired by the set-up of the team.

“All of us know that Adrian Luna is one of the best players in this league. The new guy that they signed (Dimitrios) Diamantakos has scored, I don’t know how many goals, but he’s a good centre-forward and it’s obvious because you only have to see their scores,” he commented.

“The character of (Marko) Leskovic, for them, is very important. But we can speak about a very good goalkeeper (Prabhsukhan Gill), we can speak about very good central midfielders, very good players on the flanks. Even Rahul KP, he can play. I think Kerala Blasters FC have a good team,” he concluded.

Hyderabad FC forward Bartholomew Ogbeche accompanied head coach Marquez in the pre-match press conference. One of the most lethal strikers to have graced the league, the Nigerian tops the goalscoring charts with a staggering 63 goals across five seasons.

Ogbeche will revisit his former club, Kerala Blasters FC, at their home ground in Kochi after a period of three years. Notably, the 38-year-old was the Blasters’ leading goalscorer during the 2019-20 campaign, netting a whopping 15 goals across 16 games. The striker is looking forward to playing in front of boisterous Yellow Army fans, but reiterated his intention of winning the game.

“I'm looking forward to playing a game against a very difficult side, but our mentality, as usual, is to win. So, the intention will be to go there with the aim of finishing the regular season with a good feeling, with a lot of confidence going into the semi-finals. It'll be nice to go back to Kochi, but the aim will be to win the game,” he said.

Despite a 3-2 loss against Jamshedpur FC in the previous game, the striker was positive about the mood in the dressing room and felt the change in the squad provided a morale boost to all the players.

“It is going very well for us. I think the fact that in the last game, regardless of the fact that we, unfortunately, lost against Jamshedpur FC, a lot of our young players got a lot of minutes. It has also boosted the mood of the whole group. We've seen a lot of times that the coach can count on any player at any time, so it keeps all of us on our toes, which is very important for the competition among us and also to make us ready, to make sure we step into every game with the aim of winning,” he concluded.