Kerala Blasters FC head coach Ivan Vukomanovic feels excited as they prepare to face Odisha FC in the first playoff fixture of the Indian Super League (ISL) 2023-24 season at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Friday. 

The Blasters encountered Odisha FC twice so far this season in the league stage, where both matches ended with a 2-1 scoreline, one for Vukomanovic’s men and the other for the Kalinga Warriors. 

Kerala Blasters FC finished the league season at the fifth place on the points table, with 33 points from their 22 matches, six points below their opponents, Odisha FC, who ended the season at fourth place.  

The Blasters have been without captain Adrian Luna for the majority of the season due to an injury, but the Uruguayan is set to make his comeback against Odisha FC, having recovered from his injury.

In his nine appearances so far this season in the ISL, Luna has already bagged three goals and four assists, while also creating 26 goal scoring chances for his team.

The Kerala Blasters head coach is excited to have his pivotal midfielder back with the squad, but doubts how long the 32-year-old can stay on the pitch, returning back from a long injury break.

He has (Luna) arrived so we can expect to see him tomorrow (on Friday) playing,” stated Vukomanovic in the pre-match press conference. 

He continued, “We have to take in some considerations, when you are coming back after four and a half, five months and especially seeing the circumstances, the weather conditions and everything where you need three water breaks in one half, you know, in these (humid) conditions. So it's obvious that he cannot play 90 minutes. But we will see how many minutes he will be available to play depending on circumstances, whatever it is. But probably we'll see him tomorrow on the pitch after so long, with pleasure.”

Vukomanovic shared insights into how his team had to undergo multiple changes owing to the numerous suspensions and injuries that the team suffered throughout the ongoing ISL season, losing players like Sachin Suresh, Kwame Peprah, Adrian Luna, Jeakson Singh for long durations. 

“During the season, we changed the whole team, which was caused by issues, by surgeries and actually, many things that we couldn't control. So you have to deal with that now in the playoffs after the season, it's completely different. Everything is different. The mindset and everything,” he shared.

He added, “Whoever goes on the pitch, give everything you have, give 100%. Fight for every ball, fight for every duel. At the end, it's like being without regret that at the end, you say ‘I gave everything'.”

Odisha FC had been one of the competitive teams so far this season, having finished off the league stage undefeated at home. Boasting a star-studded foreign arsenal comprising Roy Krishna, Diego Mauricio, Ahmed Jahouh and Mourtada Fall, the Kalinga Warriors have been a strong unit on their home turf.

Assessing their upcoming opponents, Vukomanovic said: “(They are) one of the best teams in the league. I think that it was the team who was the most consistent throughout the whole season, without, let's say, dangerous injuries. They were one of the teams who were consistent with the full squad of foreigners throughout the whole year.”

Considering the toughness of the challenge to be a motivating factor for the team, he added, “For us as a team.. we get a great motivation to get out and fight with the best weapon you have and try to win the game.”

Vukomanovic revealed that forward Dimitrios Diamantakos, who is the current leader for the ISL Golden Boot this season with 13 goals to his name, could miss the playoff fixture as he is still regaining full fitness.  

On being asked whether he will take the pitch on Friday, the 46-year-old replied, “Most probably not. Because he suffered, in that period where we had three games in a short term. So we still have to take care of that, because in this kind of game, you want to have all players 100% ready. We'll assess him today (on Thursday), also in the training session tomorrow, if there is any risk or any kind of problem.”

We need to win and we are ready for it: Mohammed Aimen

Midfielder Mohammed Aimen accompanied the head coach to the pre-match press conference. 

The youngster has been quite an impactful player in the middle of the pitch for the Blasters, with one goal and as many assists in 20 appearances. Aimen has recorded 252 passes and 22 dribbles, creating 16 chances in the process. 

The 21-year-old shared insights on their approach for their upcoming match against Odisha FC. 

“The mindset is always positive because it's like a playoffs. So it's like only one game. So anyhow we need to win the game and we are ready for that. And we are prepared well also,” stated Aimen.

Aimen concluded the press conference by sharing how it feels to share the pitch with his twin brother, Mohammed Azhar. 

“It's like a great feeling. Two brothers are playing in one team, so of course our parents will be happy and proud. So always their happiness is our motivation. So we are always trying to make them happy,” he signed off.