Kerala Blasters FC head coach Ivan Vukomanovic is confident of achieving big things this season with fans by their side in the stands, as his team takes on East Bengal FC in the season opener of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2022-23 campaign at the JLN Stadium in Kochi on Friday.

Having reached the final of last season, Vukomanovic has forewarned his players not to take East Bengal FC lightly while also deeming them as a potential surprise package for the season ahead. The Serbian also laid emphasis on the unpredictability of the teams in the league, urging his players to come prepared.

Hero ISL 2022-23, Kerala Blasters FC preview: With fans back, Vukomanovic’s Yellow Army look to go all the way

The Tuskers will be relying on the unwavering support of their Yellow Army after a gap of two years at the JLN Stadium in Kochi, with the fans likely to spice up the atmosphere during the match.

Youngster Saurav Mandal - who switched sides from East Bengal FC to Kerala Blasters FC - and Jessel Carneiro - who endured an injury-laden season last year joined head coach Vukomanovic as they addressed the media in the official pre-match press conference in Kochi ahead of the opener.

Here are the excerpts from Vukomanovic’s press conference

How does it feel to be back in the stadium, playing in front of the fans? What would your message be to them ahead of the first match and through the season?

Vukomanovic: It’s a great feeling to get back to the stadium and play together with the crowd and the fans because football, we play for the fans, and it will be such a pleasure and honour to be here on Friday. We are happy with the pre-season period, we are happy with everything we achieved in the last couple of months. We’re excited and ready for the game.

We would like to see them [fans] in large numbers because last year when we were playing without them, I must admit, it was awful and was really not nice to be playing in that atmosphere. This year, especially when we are playing our home games, we will give our everything for the logo, for the badge we are wearing on our shirts. So, I know together we can achieve a lot.

What are the objectives for this season now that you’ve narrowly missed out on the title last year?

Vukomanovic: Hero ISL is such a nice competition because of the fact that anybody can beat anybody. Last year, if you look in our case, nobody expected us to reach the finals especially after we had such a dry period of matches without any huge results yet we reached the finals where nobody expected to see us.

I think this year, it will be the same. We can see some surprises, some disappointments. Of course, the teams who are capable of managing the season in the long term can achieve nice things this year because this year will be completely different as we’ll have six spots for playoffs.

You’re in your second season as Kerala Blasters FC head coach. The team has never had a coach who’s managed two back-to-back seasons. So, does that sort of add pressure given that you made into the final last season?

Vukomanovic: No because it just proves that the organisation you work with is consistent. With the process you believe in and you work on a project that everybody knows what needs to be done. Now, we have consistency in the work, players have adapted to the work, the technical, medical, and support staff are in great coordination with the management and everything goes smoothly.

For us, there is no pressure, there is always a pleasure because the players and us are doing something that we love, so when you have this kind of atmosphere and situation, you have a positive mindset and nice things tend to happen. We believe in our objectives, we believe in our ideas, and we will see where it takes us.

What is your take on East Bengal FC and their new head coach Stephen Constantine? What are your initial thoughts on the first opposition?

Vukomanovic: East Bengal FC had a couple of average seasons, but it was the same case with Kerala Blasters FC. After such a dry period, you have new ideas, you have new motivation, new power, and with the changes they had, I think they showed in the Durand Cup that they can be one of the surprise packages in the league.

Of course, they have a good coach, they have a good team. Whoever thinks we’ll have it easy against East Bengal FC are wrong; this is a good team, this is a good organisation, so we have to be ready for tomorrow.

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Can the new signings replace the old players who have departed the club?

Vukomanovic: The new players arrived for a reason, the club has signed them because they’ve shown quality. It doesn’t matter if we speak about foreign players, domestic players coming from Hero ISL, Hero I-League or any other league, they possess quality. I hope they have the qualities to show some nice things this season.

What do you think about the new playoffs format this season? Does the weekend-centric match calendar help the team?

Vukomanovic: Yes, of course. From a coaching perspective and a technical point of view, it’s better because you have more time to practise, more time to recover, more time to train, and it gives you a longer term in one season. When the season is in a longer term, there is possibility to recover and get back on the pitch if a player is injured.

In a longer term, the players players get more space to improve, to become better, big gaps between games gives you more time to recover the body, keeping you ready for the next game as compared to a shorter term where there are no gaps between games, leaving less time for training, and injury-hit players get less time to recover.

Here are the excerpts from Jessel Carneiro and Saurav Mandal

What are your thoughts ahead of the new season? How is the team coming along?

Carneiro: We are playing in front of the crowd after two seasons of missing them. The team is working hard and we’re very pumped and will go for the victory.

After your injury last season, how are you feeling physically and mentally?

Carneiro: Physically, I’m normal just as I was prior to the injury. After the surgery, I’m alright and everything is going well and I’m looking forward to playing my first game in front of the fans.

What made you choose Kerala Blasters FC?

Mandal: Choosing Kerala Blasters FC was one of the best decisions because it is the best team in the country right now and the coach is frank, honest, and very friendly. He’s supporting everyone, especially the youngsters, so I hope we have a good season this year. I hope the fans come in huge numbers tomorrow because they’re very motivating and we’ll make sure they have a good time watching us.

You play your first match against your former club East Bengal FC? What are your thoughts on that?

Mandal: It will definitely be a good feeling playing against them but I hope we get the three points but all the best to them as well.