Kerala Blasters FC head coach Ivan Vukomanovic emphasised the importance of finishing the Indian Super League (ISL) stage positively ahead of their clash against Hyderabad FC at the GMC Athletic Stadium in Hyderabad FC on Friday.

The Blasters are set for an away clash against Hyderabad FC in their final league fixture of the season, aiming to build momentum ahead of the playoffs. Having already secured their place in the fifth position, Kerala Blasters FC is eyeing a strong finish to their regular season campaign, marking their third consecutive qualification for the playoffs.

On the other hand, Hyderabad FC, with just one win this season, will be determined to conclude their season on a high note, especially in front of their home fans. They will be facing a Kerala Blasters FC side that has endured a winless streak in their last five league matches. Despite this, the upcoming game presents an opportunity for the Blasters to break their winless run and approach the playoffs with renewed confidence, adding an intriguing dimension to the match.

“We want to approach the game with a smile, with good motivation with the big enthusiasm that you want to close down this chapter on a positive note. I’m very happy with the response of many young players because they're fighting for their spot, especially players who did not play a lot in the last period. It's very important for them to get the playing time, of course, taking care about certain things. Not taking risks. We'll also have to check about players with yellow cards if we want to allow them to play (at Hyderabad) or not because it will be very important to have everybody available for the playoffs,” Vukomanovic stated in the pre-match press conference. 

In their recent match against NorthEast United FC in Guwahati, Kerala Blasters FC opted for a youthful starting lineup, which ultimately led to a 0-2 defeat. A total of seven young players were included in the starting eleven, featuring talents such as Nihal Sudeesh, Ishan Pandita, Freddy Lallawmawma, Saurav Mandal, and Lara Sharma, who have seen limited action this season. In contrast, experienced players like Adrian Luna, Dimitrios Diamantakos, and Fedor Cernych did not accompany the team for the Guwahati fixture.

When asked if the same youngsters will feature in the upcoming game, Vukomanovic said: “Maybe (we could expect young players starting) but we also want to get back some of our players from the first squad as well. We want to stay in that positive shape and positive rhythm so that the players who (are unfit) will be there for the playoffs. Some of them will recover after injuries against East Bengal FC. Some of them, we still have to be very careful. We want to go there (to Hyderabad) with a strong team to compete in order to get a positive result.” 

He added: “If you speak about the NorthEast (United FC) game, it was a tough challenge. A new goalkeeper (Lara Sharm), a whole new team if you compare to the beginning of the (league) competition, let's say players from the starting eleven. Pritam (Kotal) was there, Milos (Drinic) was there (along with) the many new players who played especially like Freddy (Lallawmawma) after injury. It was crucial for him also to get back in shape. It was kind of a new team. Especially young players, for them,it is important to recognize the feeling playing in ISL, seeing all the stadiums and everything, so we'll see some of them probably against Hyderabad FC.”

Despite the outcome of Friday's match, Kerala Blasters FC is set to enter the playoffs for the third consecutive season, marking a historic achievement for the club. This season's qualification for the knockout stages under Ivan Vukomanovic's leadership represents the first time in their history that they have achieved this feat for three consecutive seasons.

During Vukomanovic's tenure, the team also secured a runner-up finish in the ISL 2021-22 final, getting there after a five-year wait. Vukomanovic expressed his delight at reaching the playoffs once again, emphasising the satisfaction of bringing joy to the club's supporters.

“The feeling is nice when the fans can feel that joy after let's say a couple of years of disappointment that you can have the hope and dream to make those surprises like we did (reaching the 2021-22 final) in the first year (of my coaching). But again, it's with the help of players, it's not about me as a coach. I'm happy that to have all those people around together in one good group that we can all cooperate and create those things of course,” he said. 

“I hope that the players will be motivated because playing in the playoffs is something special. I hope that they will give everything they have on the pitch because being part of Kerala Blasters FC is something special. It’s not easy. It's one of the most difficult clubs to be in India because there are expectations, there is responsibility that you have to take but it's a great feeling. I like it. I enjoy every moment at Kerala Blasters FC, every day in Kerala, here in Kochi. It's a pleasure, it's a joy to be there (in the playoffs) and we want to continue fighting for our fans because they deserve to see us fighting,” he further expressed. 

Happy to get back in the team: Lallawmawma

Midfielder Lallawmawma joined Vukomanovic at the pre-match press conference. Hailing from Mizoram, he has made appearances in only eight games for Kerala Blasters FC this season, with most of them occurring in the first half of the campaign before he sustained an injury.

Having made his comeback from injury in April, Lallawmawma made a substitute appearance in their match against East Bengal FC and was subsequently included in the starting lineup for the following game against NorthEast United FC. Expressing his joy at rejoining the team, Lallawmawma shared his optimism about achieving a positive result against Hyderabad FC

“Every match is important and now especially, it's going to be our last match of the league. We want to win the game and get the best result that we can so that we can play a better game in the playoffs and get good energy, positive energy. I'm happy to get back in the team after a long injury (break). I will do everything for the team and help them win,” the youngster stated.