The southerners have put together an impressive squad in the summer.
The 2020-21 Indian Super League (ISL) begins in less than a fortnight and all the teams are in the last stages of their preparations ahead of what promises to be an exciting season ahead. Kerala Blasters are by no means an exception to this – and they will also begin the proceedings on November 20 when they meet ATK Mohun Bagan in the opening fixture at the GMC Stadium in Bambolim, Goa.
The upcoming season will be different than the previous ones, as the entire competition will be held in a bio-bubble within the state of Goa. All teams have entered the bio-bubble a few weeks ago and every single individual involved had to go through a 14-day mandatory quarantine due to the ongoing COVID-19 concerns. For the Blasters, every player apart from Bakary Kone, Jordan Murray and Facundo Pererya have completed their quarantine and have already started training ahead of the competition.
The Yellow Army is almost an entirely new unit this time, courtesy to a squad overhaul this summer. Six new foreign players have been roped in, while most of their domestic youngsters have been handed multi-year contracts ahead of what appears to be a long-term project under new Sporting Director Karolis Skinkys and head coach Kibu Vicuna. Here are the five key players for Kerala Blasters in ISL 2020-21season.
5. Nongdamba Naorem
Manipur-born Nongdamba Naorem was one of Mohun Bagan’s biggest revelations in the 2019-20 season, as he helped them lift the I-League title since joining them on a loan move from Kerala Blasters. The youngster is now back at his parent club, who fully intend to use his abilities to their advantage in the upcoming ISL season.
And what’s more – Kibu Vicuna, who was one of the primary reasons behind the Mariners’ title-winning run in the I-League – has also joined the club as their head coach. Vicuna was instrumental in the 20-year-old’s development in the last campaign by giving him many chances, and he is expected to continue doing the same this season as well.
Naorem is most known for his pace, dribbling and attacking abilities as well as displaying a penchant to finish off chances well. This makes him one of the forwards to watch out for this season in the ISL. He is likely to start on the left wing and be a part of the attacking quartet which will also include centre-forward Gary Hooper, right winger Rahul KP and attacking midfielder Facundo Pereyra.
4. Vicente Gomez
Spanish defensive midfielder Vicente Gomez signed a three-year deal with Kerala Blasters ahead of the upcoming season. He is the club’s only foreign signing this season to have been awarded a multi-year contract, and that shows the level of trust that the management has placed on him.
Gomez has spent his entire career in his Spain, initially featuring for UD Las Palmas in the Spanish Segunda Division and LaLiga. He played with them for nine years, before joining Deportivo de La Coruna in 2018. In the past two seasons, he racked up 60 appearances for the club, as they finished sixth and 19th in the Segunda Division respectively.
A proper anchorman by trade, the 32-year-old is expected to be positioned just in front of the Blasters’ defence. Kibu Vicuna will most probably use him as the link between the team’s defensive and attacking departments and he will be asked to break down the opposition’s forays, while also assisting in the build-up play. Having had the experience of playing over 40 games per season till recent times, Gomez is expected to be a quality addition to the side given the lesser number of matches in the ISL.
3. Gary Hooper
English striker Gary Hooper has joined Kerala Blasters on a season-long deal for the 2020-21 edition of the ISL. He is one of the most experienced forwards in the Indian top flight this season, having made close to 500 club appearances and notching over 200 goals.
Hooper has played for clubs like Norwich City, Sheffield Wednesday, Celtic, Leyton Orient and Wellington Phoenix. Under Vicuna, the 32-year-old looks all set to play as the first-choice striker. His penchant to position himself well in the opposition’s box, coupled with his accurate finishing from close range makes him a formidable force. In the recently-concluded 2019-20 season, Hooper made 21 A-league appearances for Phoenix and also played a key role in the club’s third-place finish, by netting eight goals and providing five assists.
Following his move away from the A-League, several experts in Australia wrote that Phoenix “lost a champion player”, given the impact that he made in the team there. If the 32-year-old is able to produce a similar effect in the ISL this season, he could turn out to be one of the club’s best buys in a long time.
2. Sahal Abdul Samad
Only one among the four Indian footballers right now to be on a long-term professional contract till 2025, Sahal Abdul Samad has come a long way from his earliest days as a footballer. The 23-year-old has been dubbed India’s ‘next big name’ in the game by legends like Sunil Chhetri and IM Vijayan – and although he hasn’t produced a performance that fits that description in recent times, he still remains one of the most important players in the club.
If you have followed Khel Now’s team profile for Kerala Blasters, you would have noticed that Sahal Abdul Samad is a confirmed starter in only one of the three formations we mentioned. Which is why we feel that he will do better as an impact substitute, coming in during the second half and scoring and creating chances at free will during this period.
During the last season, Kerala Blasters’ former head coach Eelco Schattorie mostly played Sahal away from his favourite No.10 position, and that affected his game and confidence in a negative manner. However, this time around, Kibu Vicuna has already made it clear that he has identified a fixed position for the youngster, so that he can get the most out of his abilities.
1. Costa Nhamoinesu
Costa Nhamoinesu is the oldest among Kerala Blasters’ overseas options this season. Like Hooper, he has also joined the club on a season-long deal. He started his professional career in Zimbabwe, before shifting base to Europe and joining WSS Wisla, a Poland-based club in 2008. Six months later, he moved to Zaglebie Lubin, where he played for five seasons before signing with Czech First League side AC Sparta Prague. In the past seven years, he racked up over 200 appearances for them, including 40 matches across the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League.
The former Zimbabwe international has played under Vicuna once before, during the latter’s time as an assistant coach at Zaglebie Lubin. It is his physical attributes that set the 34-year-old apart from most other defenders in the ISL. He is expected to lead the Blasters’ defence in the upcoming 2020-21 season.
It is by no means a small feat to play over 200 matches for a single club and the Spanish coach will look to tap into Nhamoinesu’s experience to make the Kerala Blasters defence a formidable unit this season. He is also expected to be one of the top captaincy choices at the club.