Sachin Tendulkar co-owned franchisee from the south western state of Kerala were a surprise finalists of the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League (ISL), mixing grit and passion with luck to finish as the runners up. Nothing less was expected of the team this season as well with ex England U-21 boss Peter Taylor in charge of the men in yellow and with a passionate fan base behind them but the season turned out to be one that the fans would want to forget.
Kerala Blasters roped in Peter Ramage and signed former World Cup winner Carlos Marchena as their marquee player. Amongst the foreign contingent, only Victor Pulga was retained.
Kerala had an impressive midfield with the likes of Joao Coimbra, Josu and wingers like Sanchez Watt and Antonio German.
Assistant coach Trevor Morgan chose to retain the services of Sandesh Jhingan, Mehtab Hossain, Saumik Dey, Sandip Nandy, Ishfaq Ahmed and Gurwinder Singh. In the ISL auction, they opted not to spend while in the draft they brought Cavin Lobo, CK Vineeth amongst others.
With PVP Ventures not financing the team any more, the club were on the lookout for investors as a consequence, their pre-season plans suffered. They were the only team who had their pre-season training in India and were also the last team to kickstart their preparations.
However, the biggest disappointment during the pre-season was the injury sustained by Marchena.
Kerala were the only team to have their pre-season preparations in India. Though the pre-season victories came against semi-professional sides that hardly did the team justice, the expectations were sky high following their inspiring ISL campaign in the previous season.
|WHAT WENT WRONG|
Though the Blasters started the season with a bang, convincingly getting the better of NorthEast United 3-1 at home and followed it up with a draw against Mumbai City, their fortunes took a turn for the worse after that when they lost four games in a row. Head coach Peter Taylor attracted a lot of flak for persisting with a 5-3-2 formation which was evidently not working. The Indian players were not used to the formation and struggled to adapt. Things reached a nadir after the away game at Pune which the team lost 2-3 when Taylor announced his decision to resign.
The management opted not to bring an experienced coach on board and gave the reigns to Irishman Terry Phelan who was head of the grassroots development programme of the Blasters and had never coached a senior team before in his career. Though he reverted to a four-man defense and the performances improved, the damage had already been done and the Blasters struggled to recover.
Blasters had one of the best defences last season and the addition of Marchena and Ramage was supposed to fortify it. Instead, experimentation with a five-man defence cost them their defensive stability. The yellow brigade leaked in 27 goals, the worst record in the league while they let in only 11 last season.
They lacked resolve in defence and midfield, especially in the final stages of a match with nine out of 27 goals conceded in the final 15 minutes. Sandesh Jhingan was nowhere close to the form he displayed last season while Perone was a massive disappointment. Full-backs Rahul Bheke and Saumik Dey especially were disappointing in the latter stages of the tournament.
Injuries and replacements:
Kerala were hampered by injuries to key players throughout the season but failed to bring in adequate replacements. Marquee player Marchena made just one appearance before flying back to Spain midway through the season. Sanchez Watt was ruled out for the season after getting injured against Atletico de Kolkata. German missed the first five games while Gurwinder Singh was ruled out in the early stages of the tournament.
Victor Pulga also missed some games due to injuries. Blasters failed to bring in proper replacements promptly and a depleted squad hampered them as they tried to climb up the ladder in the latter part of the season. Brazilian defender Rodrigo Alves was brought in with only three games remaining, while Sanchez Watt was not replaced. Despite Gurwinder getting injured early in the season, Deepak Mondal was signed very late.
Flawed recruitment policy:
Kerala opted not to buy any player from the Indian player auctions and also decided to allow central figures of last season’s campaign to leave. Players who featured in the auction like Anas Edathodika, Karanjit Singh and Sunil Chhetri had impressive campaigns for their respective teams.
Pulga was the only foreign player retained while they allowed star striker Iain Hume and defensive lynchpin Cedric Hengbart to depart which meant the squad did not have any continuity from the previous season.
Lack of solidity in midfield:
Kerala’s midfield possessed a lot of guile and creativity with Josu, Coimbra, Vineeth and Lobo but lacked that bit of solidity which was required to win games. They managed only three victories in 14 outings and part of it was down to the midfield. It was highlighted in the home game against Kolkata where a naive Blasters were picked off by the opposition who scored two goals in last 10 minutes to win the game 3-2.
Mehtab Hossain had an average season while young Shankar Sampingiraj was poor. Phelan also used Brazilian centre-back Bruno Perone in midfield to add some solidity in certain games but the move failed. In the end, a combination of mismanagement and unfortunate injuries meant that the finalists of last season finished bottom despite commanding a fanatical following which saw Kochi garner an astonishing average attendance of about 55,000.
Kerala put in their best performance of the season when they defeated Pune 2-0 at home in their eighth game of the season. Though the Blasters defeated NorthEast 4-1 at Guwahati, the sheer dominance and vibrancy which was displayed in this game was unmatched. The score line does not tell the complete story while 32 attempts on goal to Pune’s 7 do.
Goals in either half from Chris Dagnall and Sanchez Watt secured the game for the men in yellow who were playing only their second game after Peter Taylor resigned as their head coach in controversial circumstances. This result proved to be one of the high points of Kerala’s disappointing season.
|TOP TWO PERFORMERS|
The English striker finished as joint top scorer for Blasters with six goals and provided numerous key assists as he proved to be one of the best performers for Kerala. He was ever present throughout for the men in yellow, putting in some terrific shifts with his tireless running and work rate.
The 29-year-old was never lacking in commitment as he helped Kerala score 22 goals this season compared to nine last time around. His most impressive performance came away at Guwahati where he bagged a brace against NorthEast United when he also scored the fastest goal in ISL history after just 30 seconds.
The strongly built forward was sidelined with a hip injury in the earlier part of the season and it was clear how much of a blow it was for Kerala, once he came into the team. He made just nine appearances but scored six goals in the final six games of the season to finish as joint top scorer for the team.
He stepped up after the influential Watt was injured and did his best to drive the Blasters forward with his strong, marauding runs. He announced himself in the home game against Kolkata where he was scintillating and scored 2 goals in a losing cause.