ISL SPECIAL | BY NIKHIL JITENDRAN Follow Nikhil Jitendran on twitter
If Alfred Hitchcock ever had the chance to script and direct the perfect football horror story, then chances are that Kerala Blasters' Indian Super League (ISL) campaign in 2015 would've been his pick of the lot.
However, with the ISL's 2016 campaign upon the subcontinent, it's evident that the Malabar franchise and their vast army of fans are flushed with the pomp which alluded them for significant quarters last season, as their franchise once again stakes its claim for the ISL title they so narrowly missed out in the inaugural season.
Can Steve Coppell and his troops respond however? That is the question.
PERFORMANCE LAST SEASON
Sachin Tendulkar's franchise failed almost on all benchmarks of every key metric for a team's success last season.
Abject - Lowest points tally, 13, in season two of the headline tournament's existence combined with the most goals conceded by a single team in the 2014 and 2015 editions - 27. They also set a new joint record for most losses in a season - seven with FC Pune City.
Comical - Quarter-way mark in the season saw the team's management, unprepossessed with the direction of the team under Peter Taylor sacked him from the position of head coach. The move was mired in controversy as stories of dressing room unrest, poor team selection and tactics were rife under the former England Under-21 coach. Kerala resorted to search for a new coach, but having found none that they were able to accomodate, turned to Terry Phelan, their technical head to lead them for the rest of the season, someone who hadn't 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.
Risible - The Yellow and Blues' fans questioned the team's recruitment policy as early as the ISL's auction process. It was then that the ISL's 2014 finalists lack of pulling power was exposed with anger seething through the fans camp on the franchise being unable to attain their desired or atleast attainable player targets. It was a boomerang that smacked straight back in the face of the authorities running the franchise.
Carlos Marchena, a marquee who made just one appearance before curtailing his stint with the club, was never replaced. 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 last term.
Camp Location – 1st leg - Thailand
Results (In No Particular Order)
Big Bang Chula United Football Club (BBCU FC)1-2 Kerala Blasters
Bangkok United 1-1 Kerala Blasters
Thai Assembled Team 0-1 Kerala Blasters
Camp Location 2nd Leg - Kolkata
Kerala Blasters 1-1 Southern Samity
THE MANAGER - STEVE COPPELL
Steve Coppell is a man not unfamiiar with the pressures of modern football and neither is he an unknown entity. As a player, he gained reputation thanks to a golden stint with Manchester United as a winger, before injury curtailed his participation on the pitch at the height of his capabilities.
As a manager he is known to be organized, efficient, yet rigid in his set-up for games - like most English managers who have tinged the spectrum for Kerala Blasters. The Liverpool-born manager's onus will be to get the team working as a unit, which he has shown at stints throughout his career.
He has managed English Premier League sides Manchester City, Crystal Palace (twice), Reading and was the Technical Director of former Premier League side Portsmouth in his last role before joining Blasters.
Marquee - For players and fans alike who needed the assuring presence of experience on the pitch, Aaron Hughes provides the perfect tonic. The Northern Irishman who has made over 100 international appearances for his national team, reinforces the central defense for the Kochi-based franchise. He is a former Fulham and Aston Villa defender, who has reached the finals of the UEFA Europa League with the former. He has over 500 career appearances to his name.
Foreign signings - The Blasters have re-signed Cedric Hengbart, a 2014 team player who participated for NorthEast United last year in the ISL, alongside Senegalese back-up Elhadji Ndoye. They have also snared Michael Chopra, whose opening ISL campaign in 2014 didn't go according to plan for the English-born striker. Kervens Belfort and Duckers Nazon have been added to their roster of strikers - with both from Haiti.
Adding solidity to the midfield, Azrack Mahamat has been roped in as a central defensive midfielder, while Josu Currias Prieto, a La Masia graduate has been retained to be a creative force in midfield. Antonio German will re-align wih the Blasters after a successful campaign for him personally, in 2015. Didier Kadio, an Ivory Coast national, is versatile in the defensive half of the field.
Graham Stack, a former Arsenal and Barnsley goalkeeper will don the number one jersey for the Chiranjeevi co-owned outfit between the sticks.
Indian Signings - Bengaluru FC's Rino Anto and C.K.Vineeth will feature for the Yellow and Blues in this season of the ISL returning to his native state, while Thongkhosiem Haokip, previously of FC Goa has been roped in as an Indian striker alongside Kerala-born midfielder Mohammed Rafique, who turned out for East Bengal in the I-League last season. The Kerala born poacher was responsible for the winning goal for Atletico de Kolkata, which beat the Blasters in season one. Mohammed Rafi, who had a torrid season with DSK Shivajians has been re-signed in again by the southern franchise.
Farukh Chowdhury, Vinit Rai and Pratik Choudhary have been added to the three aspects (strikeforce, midfield and defense) of the team from the Indian contingent, while a majority of the Indian spine - viz. Sandesh Jhingan, Mehtab Hossain, Ishfaq Ahmed, Gurwinder Singh and Sandip Nandy have been retained.
Defense - Having lost their defensive mojo last season, the Blasters have now revitalized that important aspect of their team with two quality additions in the form of Hughes and Hengbart. They will offer the defensive structure Coppell analyzed as lacking last season. The former Bristol City coach will have the freedom to align his squad in the form of a three-man or four-man rearguard, considering his defensive options at hand.
Foreign Youth at the helm: Except Aaron Hughes, Hengbart, Chopra and Stack, the rest of the foreign contingent are under the age of 30. In fact five players are under the age of 25.
Player Unavailabilities - Belfort and Nazon have been called up to the Haitian national team, while C K Vineeth and Rino Anto will participate in the Asian Football Confederations (AFC) Cup semi-finals for Bengaluru FC last season. The combination of these factors will see the quadruplet miss upto five matches for the Blasters. This could put the fabric of the team under severe strain, considering they'll have to atone for some injuries as well.
Lack of Pace - Apart from German up front, their joint top goal scorer from last year, and perhaps even Thongkhosiem Haokip, the Blasters squad reeks of a team that lacks pace. Michael Chopra is expected to lead the line alongside in attack and he's yet to show the full extent of his fitness, after a harrowing couple of years on the medical table. He's not young either and at 32 his involvement is expected to be in shades too.
Hughes comes in with relatively small boots to fill on the marquee front for the Blasters. His predecssor Carlos Marchena played just one game, but the onus on Hughes will be to play every possible one. Coming on the back of a season with Melbourne City FC, the Northern Irishman will be ready to protect Graham Stack in goal.
The 23-year-old defender has cemented his position in the heart of the defense for the Indian national team. In his third season with Kerala, the energetic Jhingan can also slot in in the full back position if required. He will complement the defensive experience available with his pace and agility.
The English striker scored six goals for the franchise last year, becoming joint top scorer for the Sachin Tendulkar co-owned side. With half a season of Scottish football under his belt, expect German to have the bit between his teeth as he hits Indian shores.
Goalkeepers: Sandip Nandy, Mohammed Ansari, Kunal Sawant, Graham Stack
Defenders: Rino Anto, Cedric Hengbart, Pratik Chowdhury, Aaron Hughes, Sandesh Jhingan, El Hadji Ndoye, Gurwinder Singh
Midfielders: Ishfaq Ahmed, Didier Kadio, Mehtab Hossain, Josue Currais Prieto, Prasanth Karuthadathkuni, Azrack Mahamat, Mohammed Rafique, Vinit Rai, CK Vineeth
Forwards: Kervens Belfort, Michael Chopra, Farukh Choudhury, Thongkhosiem Haokip, Duckens Nazon, Mohammed Rafi, Antonio German
“I prefer to launch attack through the wings. I was a winger and it is easy to break the defense of the opponent through this."
- Steve Coppell
(Kerala Blasters Manager)