The Kerala Blasters boss also revealed that he feels history and statistics in rivalries are subject to changes.

Yet another edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) beckons and Kerala Blasters are ready as usual. The Kochi-based side had a disappointing campaign in the 2020-21 season and are keen to make amends as evident from their efforts ahead of the new season. Under newly appointed head coach Ivan Vukomanovic, the club will play their campaign opener against ATK Mohun Bagan on Friday.

Vukomanovic, accompanied by defender Marko Leskovic spoke to the press ahead of the season opener on Thursday. While Leskovic revealed that he has settled well into the team, the Serbian-Belgian tactician opened up on the team’s hopes ahead of the new season, the pre-season preparatory camp, the roles of a few key names in the squad and more.

Fitness and stamina of players

Kerala Blasters experienced many setbacks in form of injuries to key players at important junctures of the previous season. Added to that, they also did not have a proper pre-season in the previous two campaigns — which affected the squad inversely. However, it has been a different story this season following the appointment of Ivan Vukomanovic.

“We worked on a whole process since the pre-season camp started. We started working hard in all possible aspects, about three and a half months ago,” the tactician began.

“After arriving at Goa, we played a few friendly games that were at least 90 minutes long, and during those matches, we were dominant for good lengths of time. Some of those games were 120 minutes long – so we’re happy on the fitness and stamina aspect as well.”

“In summation, we are satisfied and we hope to become better as the league progresses,” he added.

Pre-season camp

Kerala Blasters’ Press conference | Ivan Vukomanovic & Marko Leskovic | ISL 2021-22

The 44-year-old expressed happiness and satisfaction with the work done by Kerala Blasters players in the pre-season camp, which began in early August.

“I am very happy with the hard work done by the boys in pre-season, apart from the Durand Cup phase. But during that part of our pre-season in Kolkata, we could not control many aspects of our training including the weather, nature and availability of facilities etc. But I’ll put that behind me now as I’d like to focus on the things that I can control. As of now I am happy. There are not many injuries or fitness concerns either. We’re satisfied with the work, but yes, there still are things that we can improve,” he quipped.

Ivan Vukomanovic also revealed about how he used his players during the pre-season. “When you’re in pre-season, all the players need playing time because that’s how they improve. We hence rotated our players in our pre-season – because they needed it,” he stated.

“We are a large group and we need each one of us to perform. The coaches also needed to see what the best qualities of each of the players are. That’s why they were rotated and played in different positions in the friendlies. They needed that practice to be able to do well in the league that starts tomorrow (November 19), and I’m happy that they were all okay with it,” the Serbian-Belgian explained.

On key players in the squad

Ivan Vukomanovic proceeded to share his thoughts on Sahal Abdul Samad, Adrian Luna, Rahul KP and Jeakson Singh – four players who are expected to make an impact in ISL 2021-22 for the southerners.

“Sahal will, of course be a part of the team’s attacking department. Regardless, all the players including him will have to carry out both attacking and defensive duties,” the tactician declared.

“Sahal be playing in different formations this season. All players will have their roles, in each of those formations. Sahal is one of the players who has the potential to become an important part of both Kerala Blasters and the Indian football team. We are happy with his improvement, and he is motivated to work hard,” he added.

“Adrian Luna is another player like Sahal who can play in different positions. Both of them can play on the wings, as attacking midfielders and also as strikers,” he explained the potential roles of the Indian international and the former Melbourne City star.

The Kerala Blasters boss was asked about how other key players like Rahul KP and Jeakson Singh spent more of their pre-season time with the Indian national team. “They’re strong boys and are professionals. It’s true that they spent more time with the national team than with us in the last three and a half months. But we’re happy with their performances and improvement over the last few weeks. Sure, they missed some sessions with us but they were also in training at the same moment. Hence yes, they’re ready for tomorrow’s game,” he said.

On ATK Mohun Bagan

Ivan Vukomanovic revealed that the think-tank at Kerala Blasters are more focused on themselves rather than the opponents.

“We are mostly focused on ourselves rather than on ATK Mohun Bagan – on how we will play and what our tasks would be on the pitch. Of course, in every game there will be situations where we have to attack and defend both. Hence overall, we aim to have a good game of football – which is why we will not be taking just one detail of one team alone into consideration,” he revealed.

The 44-year-old also shared his thoughts on pre-season friendlies and how it could give the Yellow Army an advantage.

“It could be an advantage but it shouldn’t always be so. Every team have their choices and we chose to start early because we wanted to study our strengths and weakness, the youth department, the second-string team and so on. We also wanted to get to know all our players in detail. Similarly, it’s their choice to do what they did and it’s the same for all teams,” he opined.

“Regarding whether our pre-season games would give us an edge, we can say that only tomorrow, after the game. It is also worth noting that ATK Mohun Bagan also did have some match-practice in the off-season, when they played in the AFC Cup. Hoping to have a good game, and may the best team win,” he uttered.

On the ATKMB-KBFC rivalry

The Mariners registered a double on the Yellow Army in the last season. Prior to that, the erstwhile-ATK also enjoyed a good record over them. But Ivan Vukomanovic believes that history and statistics can be changed.

“History and statistics are here to tell you about what has happened so far. But tomorrow’s will be a new game. At that moment, history will be behind us. Statistics are meant to be changed and history is meant to be re-written. We’re motivated, and I just hope that the boys will be able to show the good side of their quality tomorrow, as we begin our league campaign. I want to see a team with a winning mentality throughout the league, and victories are what we’ll be going for,” he clarified.

On Stephan van der Heyden as assistant coach

Earlier in November, the Blasters announced that they have roped in van der Heyden as the assistant coach. Heyden replaces Patrick van Kets, who had to leave the club and return home following a personal emergency.

Speaking on the signing, Vukomanovic said, “Stephan (van der Heyden) is a football coach with a lot of experience. He’s worked at big clubs and national teams as a coach. He’s a former footballer himself and has played for the Belgian national team too. We have known each other for a long time, since our days in Belgium. We did our coaching education together. He’s certainly someone who will help us a lot following the departure of coach Patrick.

“We’re happy with his signing, and are expecting him to be here tomorrow,” he continued.

Team news

Ivan Vukomanovic revealed that the entire Kerala Blasters squad, barring Enes Sipovic will be available for selection against ATK Mohun Bagan. Sipovic received a red card in the final league stage game for Chennaiyin FC last season and would be serving a one-match suspension.

“Everybody’s available for tomorrow’s game – it’s a luxury really, in football. We’ve had to manage the players across the last three and a half months and we have been able to avoid injuries despite the hard work,” he rejoiced.

“We have a very good team with a lot of talents. Our young Indian starlets have to improve a lot, but they can surely become future assets for both the club and the Indian national team, with all the potential that they have. I believe in all of them,” the head coach concluded.

Marko Leskovic’s quotes

The 30-year-old is part of the new overseas contingent at kerala Blasters this season. The southerners conceded many goals in the previous season and Leskovic was brought in to rectify that problem.

“I’ve been with the team for nearly two months now. I’m very happy to be here. We’ve worked hard in the pre-season,” he opined.

“The team is in good shape. We have some good players too – I knew Enes (Sipovic) from our time together previously. We’re working together in the bio-bubble and we’ve also received good support from the staff, including the coach Ivan (Vukomanovic),” he remarked.

“We played five or six pre-season games. I think we generally played well, except for maybe in one match. Regardless, we learned a lot from each of those games. Pre-season games are important to test our levels. I think we’re in good condition now, and are excited to kick-off our league campaign tomorrow.

“I think the level of football is good here in India. The Indian players in the squad are young and they want to learn. They are good in terms of technique and physical condition and are improving tactically as well,” he signed off.

For more football updates, follow Khel Now on TwitterInstagram and join our community on Telegram.