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With star-studded squad and zealous fans, Kerala Blasters gear up for title charge

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Of the 10 teams in the ISL 2017-18, nobody comes close to the history of the rosters that Kerala Blasters FC possess.

For two-time Hero Indian Super League (ISL) finalists Kerala Blasters FC, the phrase ‘so close yet so far’ is perhaps apt. The second most consistent team after two-time champion ATK, apart from being an effective and lethal footballing unit, boasts of possessing one of the most passionate fan bases worldwide.

Before the ISL got up and running in 2014, the last club to represent Kerala in the topmost flight of Indian football was Chirag United Kerala. The club, however, got dissolved in 2012 leaving the possibility of one of the most popular footballing belts to fade into oblivion. That, thankfully, did not happen when ‘cricket’ decided to lend a helping hand. Now, if you combine the most fervent football fans in the country with its most loved cricketer, what you get is a phenomenon.

And a phenomenon is what the Sachin Tendulkar-owned Kerala Blasters have become over the past three years with the promise of much more to come. The only team to have drawn an average stadium turnout in excess of 45,000 in all three seasons, last year’s final gave the crowd the record of being the fifth loudest ever, when the decibel metre hit an upper limit of 128!

Of the three seasons, Kerala have had two opportunities where they came within touching distance of lifting the ISL trophy. On both occasions, denial of that glory came in the form of the team from the Mecca of Indian football - ATK. One could put it down to sheer bad luck or a lapse in concentration at crucial moments, but the fact remains that the Blasters are twice finalists, while their tormentors are twice champions.

 

Hero ISL 2014 final: Atletico De Kolkata 1-0 Kerala Blasters

The final of the inaugural season had the Blasters throwing everything at ATK, but frantic defending combined with stunning goalkeeping just would not allow the ball to cross the goal-line. When that did happen, in virtually the final moment of the game, it came from the head of Mohammed Rafique

During 2016 final, playing against the same opponents in their own den, they had an advantageous position twice. One, when they were leading on the night - a lead nullified by another header, this time from Henrique Sereno - and then again when Iain Hume missed his spot-kick for ATK, which didn’t matter ultimately as the Blasters missed two of theirs.

Hero ISL 2016 final: Atletico De Kolkata 1-1 Kerala Blasters (ATK won on penalties)

This time around, with a longer and more competitive season at our doorsteps, Kerala Blasters has been busy assembling perhaps the meanest army of the lot, at least on paper.

To begin with, signing a former Premier League manager who also worked with Sir Alex Ferguson for 11 years, was a smart move. Rene Meulensteen’s influence brought in two former Manchester United stars who he was familiar with - Bulgarian goal machine Dimitar Berbatov, and the no-nonsense defensive lynchpin Wes Brown. If that was not enough, they also acquired the services of good old Iain Hume, the all-time ISL top scorer and his team’s top scorer in each of the three seasons.


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What is smarter though, is that they have nicely blended experience with some youngsters bubbling with talent. The Reliance Foundation Youth Sports (RFYS) is the breeding ground for such talent, and in came Ajith Sivan, one of their standout players in recent times. Also joining them are two eye-catching 25-year-olds, Jackichand Singh and Milan Singh.

Now, everyone connects to some local flavour. CK Vineeth is not only popular among the Keralites, but last season’s highest-scoring Indian is a name to reckon with across the country too. The free-scoring and flamboyant winger is perhaps the face of football as far as the locals are concerned.

Youth with experience is rare, but that is what robust centre-back Sandesh Jhingan brings to the Kerala squad. Having captained the national team recently, the prospect of him pairing with Wes Brown at the back is a scary one for opponents.

So, Kerala Blasters have the fans, and they have the team. As one of the favourites this ISL season, will their title charge ultimately lead them to that elusive cusp of glory?

Published: Tue Oct 31, 2017 03:18 PM IST

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