Ahead of the 2016 Indian Super League season, Khel Now profiles each of the eight participants of the tournament. In this edition, we take you through Kerala Blasters’ season…
Last season’s performance
With every team in the ISL as mighty as the other, one can hardly brand any side as minnows; however, Blasters managed to earn that very nickname last season as they finished their 14-game campaign with just three wins. Despite making the ISL 2014 finals, they struggled greatly last season as they held the worst defensive record – they shipped 27 goals with a negative goal difference of -5 – in the tournament last season. The controversial sacking of former England under-21 coach Peter Taylor, bizarre appointment of the inexperienced Terry Phelan and the departure of marquee signing Carlos Marchena summed up their abysmal season.
However, last season’s performance hardly matters in a tournament that only features eight equally equipped teams and the Blasters will look to contend for the title once again this campaign.
Steve Coppell has been signed as the coach for the 2016 season. Although he has not been involved in football management in over six years – his last stint as a manager was with Bristol City in 2010 – he comes with a resume so decorated that it easily makes him the most experienced gaffer in the tournament by a country mile.
Despite retiring from football at a tender age of 28, he had already established himself as an all-time great having garnered 42 England caps and over 300 appearances for Manchester United. Retirement through depressing circumstances hardly deterred him as he entered management months after hanging up his boots. The veteran football person has traveled the length and breadth of the English game and was last the Director of Football at Portsmouth. In the 2005-06 season he led Reading to promotion to the Premier League by setting a new record of 33 games unbeaten.
Transfers In: Aaron Hughes may have departed to the A-League after falling out of favour at Championship side Brighton and Hove Albion, but he is still playing at the highest level and one needs no better proof than his participation in the European Championship. Starting all but one game of Northern Ireland’s campaign – they reached the round-of-16 – he qualifies as a marquee signing who, besides being a crowd puller, can actually help the team on the pitch.
The Blasters retained local talent CK Vineeth, Sandesh Jhingan, Gurwinder Singh and Mehtab Hossain besides bringing in Ishfaq Ahmed, Kunal Sawant, Farukh Chowdhury, Vinit Rai, Pratik Chowdhury, and Kerala-born Indian international Rino Anto and junior International Prashant Mohan ahead of the upcoming season. La Masia academy graduate Josue Currais and last season’s top scorer Antonio German have also been retained.
Newly capped Indian international forward Mohamed Rafique has been signed from Atletico de Kolkata whilst Cedric Hengbart has also returned to Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium after a season’s absence. Haiti internationals Kervens Belfort and Duckens Nazon make their ISL debuts with Blasters whilst former Cardiff City striker Michael Chopra returns to don the yellow strip after one season. Former Arsenal goalkeeper Graham Stack has been signed to guard the Blasters goal.
Transfers out: Most of the foreign players have not been brought back, with former Arsenal player Sanchez Watt and Chris Dagnall, who left for Hibernian, being the notable absentees from this season’s squad. Former Benfica midfielder João Coimbra has not been brought back whilst Brazilian Bruno Perone is currently plying his trade with Wilmington Hammerheads.
Peter Ramage, Stephen Bywater, and Marcus Williams have not been signed again,and their absence marks a significant dip in the experience the squad as a whole has. That could be deemed a wise move as – barring the marquee signing – every foreign player is under the age of 30.
Formation and Tactics
Blasters will like operate in a straightforward 4-4-2 with the experienced Stack between the sticks and a back four of Jhingan, Hughes, Hengbart and Gurwinder in front of him. Prietto and Hossain will play key roles in the middles of midfield, while Md. Rafi and Karvens Belfort will provide the width and much of the supply from the flanks, to a front pairing of Haokip and German. Haiti international Kervens Belfort will miss part of the season owing to national duty. Also, when the Bengaluru C pairing of C.K. Vineeth and Rino Anto return they will slot in as automatic starters.
Player to Watch-Aaron Hughes
With the ISL marquee players usually being has-beens, Blasters have been able to nail a deal for Northern Ireland international Hughes. Known for his brilliant passing and ball retention abilities, he will likely dictate the play from deep. At 36, he may not prefer going forward a lot, but his contribution will definitely be vital for Blasters’ progress this season.
Blasters may have had the worst attacking record in 2014 and the worst defensive record in 2015, but their history will definitely not stop them from mounting a title challenge this season. Given the shrewd signings, they have a good chance of making the KNOCKOUT stages of the tournament.
Editorial by Khel Now Correspondent from Chennai Praveen Paramasivan.