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ISL 2018-19 Team Profile: Kerala Blasters

Written by: Ali Shibil Roshan

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The South Indian outfit have retained their best performers from the last campaign and have also made some good additions.

After finishing sixth last season, Kerala Blasters made it a point to make certain improvements in areas where they lacked during their last campaign. Gaffer David James' introduction at the helm midway through the last term, played an important role in the club's performances improving from the poor displays under Rene Meulensteen.

The squad looks more lethal this time around and have had a pretty decent pre-season where they played against top quality sides like Girona FC. Although, they lost against big teams like the La Liga club and Melbourne City, the experience gained could impact their performance this season.

Last Season's Performance

Despite having a star-studded squad, Kerala Blasters failed to advance to the playoffs last season. Ahead of the campaign, the southern outfit appointed former Manchester United first-team coach Rene Meulensteen to replace Steve Coppell at the helm of the club. They also recruited former Red Devils players like Dimitar Berbatov and Wes Brown to their roster. 

But, on the pitch, the Blasters lacked cohesiveness. Kerala had a mediocre midfield and the absence of a playmaker and a proper defensive midfielder was visible in their game. Moreover, in spite of having players like CK Vineeth and Iain Hume, the attack lacked incisiveness and the team struggled to score goals.

Also, while they had players like Sandesh Jhingan, Lalruatthara, Brown, Nemanja Lakic-Pesic and Rino Anto in the defence, they, too, were prone to committing errors. Following their dismal performances, Blasters sacked Meulensteen and brought in their former player-manager David James. While the ex-Liverpool goalkeeper helped the team steady the ship, he failed to aid them to the playoffs, but earned a direct spot in the Super Cup.

Pre-Season

Kerala Blasters participated in the Toyota Yaris LaLiga World - The first international pre-season tournament to be held in India - and played against top sides like Melbourne City and Girona FC.

Although, the southerners endured two humiliating defeats, facing tough opposition in pre-season would have helped the club understand the improvements needed as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Some players delivered solid outings against Girona and Melbourne City, which would have helped James understand the potential of the players the team has at its disposal.



The Blasters then flew to Thailand for another pre-season campaign. There they registered a thumping 4-1 victory against Bangkok Thonburi University in their opening game. In their second game, Kerala defeated Port FC (B) 3-1.

The Coach

The introduction of David James midway through last season had an instant impact

James, who replaced Meulensteen midway through last season, remains as Kerala Blasters' head coach for this edition of the Indian Super League. The Englishman made an instant impact last term, as the Blasters looked more lethal with him at the helm.

Had Kerala earned a few more points before James arrived, the former Manchester City shot-stopper could have helped the Kochi-based ISL outfit advance to the playoffs of the league. He has made some good additions to the squad this season and will be hoping to clinch the coveted title that eluded him and his team in ISL Season 1.

Transfer Dealings

Ins: Kerala Blasters have retained three foreign players as Keziron Kizito, Courage Pekuson, Lakic-Pesic will again ply their trade for the southern outfit. They have also decided to retain club skipper Sandesh Jhingan (who rejected a staggering offer from ATK], Lalruatthara, Lalthakima and Pritam Kumar.

Young Indian shot-stopper Dheeraj Singh, who recently made his debut for Kerala in the LaLiga World against Melbourne City, Naveen Kumar, who joined from FC Goa and local boy Sujith MS will vie for the spot of #1 goalkeeper this season.

They have also reinforced their defensive department with the inclusion of experienced French defender Cyril Kali. Young defender Abdul Hakku and experienced India international Anas Edathodika have also joined the squad to bolster the backline. Mohammed Rakip, who put up a brilliant display against Girona in the LaLiga World, will add depth to their defensive roster.

Kerala Blasters seriously lacked the presence of a decent defensive midfielder last season and they have rectified that problem with the signing of 26-year-old Serbian Nikola Krcmarevic and Zakeer Mundampara, who joined from Mumbai City. Young players like Loken Meitei, Deependra Negi, Prasanth, Sahal Abdul Samad, who impressed everyone in the last edition will again play for the Blasters this season.

Scoring goals was a problem for Kerala last campaign. The fact that Hume, who missed most of the league due to an injury, was their top scorer last season, hints at the incompetence of their attackers. To solve the conundrum, the Yellow Tuskers have signed two experienced, proven attackers; Matej Popltanik and Slavisa Stojanovic.

Apart from these two foreign additions, Kerala Blasters have also signed India internationals Holicharan Narzary and Seminlen Doungel. Santosh Trophy hero Jithin MS has joined Kerala, adding some local flavour to the team's attacking lineup along with CK Vineeth, who is also among the retained list.

Outs: Kerala Blasters decided not to retain five of their foreign players - Paul Rachubka, Brown, Victor Pulga, Berbatov and Hume - from last season, while Icelandic striker Gudjon Baldvinsson went back to Stjarnan FC following the end of his loan spell.

Goalkeepers Sandip Nandy and Subhasish Roy have also left Kerala. Local boy Rino Anto has joined Bengaluru FC, while Samuel Shadap has become a free agent now. In the midfield, Jackichand Singh has joined FC Goa, while Milan Singh will play for Mumbai City in ISL 5.


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Meanwhile, Delhi Dynamos have roped in 25-year-old midfielder Siam Hangal, whereas Arata Izumi has retired from professional football. Midfielder Jishnu Balakrishnan has left Kerala Blasters for another Kerala-based outfit, Gokulam Kerala. Akin to Shadap, Karan Sawhney has also become a free agent and is exploring new options.

Tactics and Formation

James is expected to go with a lone striker upfront

David James is likely to field the team in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which would provide an adequate defensive shield and much-needed attacking impetus. Between the sticks, young shot-stopper Dheeraj is expected to be given the nod ahead of Naveen Kumar. 

In the backline, James will likely go for 4-man defence. Lalruatthara, who won the Emerging Player of the Season award in the 2017-18 campaign, will ply his trade on the right flank should Jhingan not play there. On the left flank, it would be Mohamed Rakip, who impressed for Kerala against Girona in the LaLiga World, who gets the nod. In central defence, Jhingan and French defender Kali will command the backline.

Kerala Blasters will play with two defensive midfielders in this system. Latest foreign recruit, Krcmarevic along with Kizito, who primarily plies his trade as a #10, are expected to play the double pivot role. Mundampara is also a decent option for the defensive midfielder's role.

Slavisa Stojanovic, Narzary and Prasanth are likely to be the three attacking midfielders to play in the starting XI. The 29-year-old Serbian attacker can play in a multitude of positions and is expected to play the #10 role for the Blasters this season. 

Narazary would play on the left flank and will be looking forward to delivering quality performances for the southerners this term. Meanwhile, Prasanth, who, with his incredible pace, stunned the Melbourne City and Girona players, will look forward to replicating the same for Kerala in the ISL. CK Vineeth too could start in place of Prasanth.

Upfront, Matej Poplatnik will likely be the lone striker for Kerala Blasters. Another local star, Vineeth is also a decent option for them in attack.

Strengths

Blasters' defence is their biggest strength. David James has plenty of options to choose from. Kerala Blasters have multiple players to play in the same positions. India internationals like Jhingan and Anas Edathodika, and foreign recruits like Kali and Lakic-Pesic are all adept at playing the central defender's role and executing it to perfection.

On the left flank, players like Lalruatthara, Mohamed Rakip and Pritam Kumar will vie for playing time this season. Kerala also have a bunch of experienced attackers who will bring in much-needed impulse and incisiveness to their play. 

On both flanks, the Blasters have pacey wingers who could be utilized to exploit and get the better of opposition defenders. Prasanth and Narazary will be looking to outrun the defenders and whip quality crosses into the box.

Weakness

Since Rino Anto left to join Bengaluru FC, Kerala Blasters do not have a decent option to fill the right-back role. While players like Jhingan, Lalruatthara and Rakip could play on the right flank, it remains to be seen how successful it would turn out. In the LaLiga World, Jhingan did not impress as a right-back. Whereas, Lalruatthara primarily plies his trade on the left flank. Nevertheless, it is expected that James would go with the latter in the role.

Fixtures

Players to Watch

Dheeraj Singh: The young goalkeeper joined Kerala Blasters ahead of the LaLiga World. Dheeraj guarded India's goalpost at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, held in India last year. He pulled off some incredible saves in the tournament against the USA, Colombia and Ghana. Before joining Kerala, Dheeraj had trial stints at Motherwell FC and AFC Bournemouth. The 18-year-old will be looking to deliver solid outings between the sticks for Kerala this season.

Nikola Krcmarevic: The absence of a quality defensive midfielder has been a problem for Kerala since they decided not to retain Mehtab Hossain ahead of the 2017-18 campaign. Nevertheless, the Blasters have added Krcmarevic to their roster to solve the problem. The 26-year-old Serbian midfielder will be looking to provide what James expects from him.

Prasanth K: The young, pacey winger from Kerala endured criticism from Blasters' fans for his sloppy performances last season in the ISL. But, in the LaLiga World, he was a revelation, or it at least looked that way, as he took on defenders with his blistering pace. He tested defenders, dribbled past them and crossed into the box, on numerous occasions, only to find none of his teammates inside the area. He is expected to be a regular for Blasters this season.

Tickets

You can book tickets for Kerala Blasters' ISL campaign on Insider.

What To Expect

David James and Kerala Blasters have retained their best performers from last season. They have also made some good additions to the squad and will be looking to challenge for the title.

Published: Tue Sep 25, 2018 04:54 PM IST

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