In their previous four Indian Super League seasons, Kerala Blasters have changed as many managers. After losing their second final against ATK in 2016 under Steve Coppell, the club has been struggling for two seasons straight. The high-profile appointments of Rene Meulensteen, David James and Nelo Vingada struggled to revive the fortunes of the franchise with fans criticising the club and the management for their recruitment and inconsistent performances.
However, with Eelco Schattorie taking over the reigns and after a busy summer of transfer activity, the Blasters can look forward to the new season with hope. For a team that struggled to score goals and was shaky at the back, the Blasters have made wholesome changes to the squad - signing some reputed foreigners along with a mix of talented local players.
When they kick off the season in Kochi against ATK on Sunday, the hardcore home fans can look forward to how things unfold with excitement.
What’s changed for 2019-’20:
Arrivals: Bilal Khan, Rehenesh Paramba, Shibin Kunniyil, Mohammed Rafi, Raphael Messi Bouli, Bartholomew Ogbeche, Darren Caldeira, Jeakson Thounaojam, Mario Arques, Moustapha Gning, Rahul KP, Samuel Lalmuanpuia.
Departures: CK Vineeth, Matej Poplatnik, Dheeraj Singh, Anas Edathodika, Cyril Kali, Nemanja Lakic-Pesic, Deependra Negi, Seiminlen Doungel, Kezito Keziron, Courage Pekuson, Loken Meitei.
Blasters seem to have addressed their goal-scoring woes with the signing of Bartholomew Ogbeche, who finished second behind FC Goa striker Ferran Corominas in the race for the Golden Boot during the 2018-’19 season alongside Mumbai City’s Moudou Sougou.
Sergio Cindoncha, Mario Arques, Gianni Zuiverloon and Cameroon’s Raphael Eric Messi Bouli are other notable additions to the squad. The attack is set to revolve around Indian youngster Sahal Abdul Samad with local talents Samuel Lalmuanpuia, Jeakson Singh and Rahul KP also added to the squad.
Dheeraj Singh, Anas Edathodika and CK Vineeth are some big names to have parted ways but the two-time finalists have a well-balanced squad at their disposal.
One would have to say that the quality in depth makes them a contender for the ISL title this season. Last year, there was a lot of reliance on individual players and when they failed to perform, results were not going their way. However, Schattorie seems to have identified the right set of players who are capable of creating chances and playing his possession-based style. They also have a strong contingent of Indian players, leaving them spoilt for choices.
Injury issues to some key players is the only concern for Kochi side at the moment. Sandesh Jhingan is likely to be out for the season after an Anterior Cruciate Ligament tear on India duty while his center-back replacements Rodrigues and Zuiverloon have been recovering from injuries. Spanish midfielder Arques is also on the sidelines and it remains to be seen if he is able to recover in time for the opening clash against ATK.
The downside to the impressive revamp is also the question over how the new-look squad will gel together for the new season. Wholesale changes can prove to be a problem for football clubs in the short-term future and it will be up to the mercurial manager to handle his resources well.
Schattorie comes with a huge experience in Indian football, having worked in the I-League as well. Last season, he guided NorthEast United to their first ISL semi-finals, that too on a low budget. There, he also got the best of uncapped Indian players such as Nikhil Kadam, Puitea, Pawan Kumar and Redeem Tlang. This season, he can look to achieve bigger things with a luxury of options and fewer restrictions as compared to his previous club.
The 47-year-old likes his teams pressing high, keeping the ball more with a strong defensive foundation. His appointment should come as a big positive for the Manjapadda supporters, who did not support James’ orthodox and defensive philosophy last season and protested by failing to turn up at their home games.
Player to watch out for: Sahal Abdul Samad
Arguably the best creative Indian midfielder at the moment, Sahal Abdul Samad will be tasked with the responsibility of keeping the Blasters’ midfield ticking. For a club that had a dismal run last season, Samad was the sole bright spot, where he was named the ISL emerging player last season. His stock has risen exponentially since then, establishing himself as key player for the Indian national team under Igor Stimac. With Schattorie’s philosophy ideal for the Samad, he could reach greater heights this year.
Goalkeepers: Bilal Khan, Rehenesh Paramba, Shibin Kunniyil.
Defenders: Gianni Zuiverloon, Jairo, Jessel Carneiro, Abdul Hakku Nediyodath, Lalruatthara, Mohammad Rakip, Pritam Singh, Sandesh Jhingan.
Midfielders: Cindoncha, Darren Caldeira, Halicharan Narzary, Jeakson Thounaojam, Mario Arques, Moustapha Gning, Prasanth Karuthadathkudi, Rahul KP, Sahal Abdul Samad, Samuel Lalmuanpuia, Seityasen Singh.
Forwards: Bartholomew Ogbeche, Mohammed Rafi, Raphael Messi Bouli.