There’s churn at Kerala Blasters year after year. The head coach changes every season, and often nearly the entire team, too. This time, six of the Kochi-based team’s seven foreign players are newcomers, as is the new head coach, Spaniard Kibu Vicuna.
There’s good reason for that. The Blasters, twice finalists in the Indian Super League (ISL), have not made it to the playoffs the last three seasons, and the club’s passionate fans are clearly running out of patience.
Two big names, Nigerian striker Bartholomew Ogbeche – the team captain was the joint top-scorer in the ISL last season with 15 goals – and defender Sandesh Jhingan have left the club. Also out is experienced goalkeeper T. P. Rehenesh.
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Every year brings new hope, and hopes are high this season. The Blasters have roped in Englishman Gary Hooper, who was in sparkling form for Celtic a few years ago, firing in 63 goals in 95 games, before moving to Norwich City in the English Premier League in 2013.
The vast experience of Burkina Faso defender Bakary Kone, who was in action for French giant Lyon between 2011 and 2016 and featured in the UEFA Champions League and the Europa League, could also come in handy.
And the arrival of Spaniard Vincente Gomez, who has played for Las Palmas and Deportivo La Coruna back home, could sort out the worries the Blasters had faced in the defensive midfield positions the last few seasons.
It’s not easy to prepare a side, especially when the team has so many new players and a new head coach.
Did the team have enough time to prepare for the ISL with the coronavirus pandemic making life difficult? Will the players take time to settle down? These are the questions that will be floating around.
Huge crowds have often turned up to support the Blasters at home in Kochi, especially during the early part of the season, and the team has spoken about this as a huge advantage. It could be tough playing in front of an empty stadium in Goa this season.
Blasters have named three skippers -- Costa Nhamoinesu, Jessel Carneiro, and Sergio Cidoncha -- for the season. Zimbabwe international Nhamoinesu is playing in his first season in the ISL, while left-back Carnerio and defensive midfielder Cidoncha were with the Blasters last season.
The arrival of Kibu Vicuna as the head coach should inspire confidence in the side, especially since he guided Mohun Bagan to the I-League title last season. Bagan has now merged with ATK and will be making its ISL debut this season.
For Vicuna, too, the league should open with a very interesting challenge as his team will be playing ATK Mohun Bagan in the ISL opener in Bambolim on November 20.
While Hooper will have Argentine Facundo Pereyra and Australian Jordan Murray for company at the front, the strong midfield has two Spaniards in Gomez and Sergio Cidoncha, the only foreigner retained by Blasters from last season.
Two more foreigners – Zimbabwean Costa Nhamoinesu and Kone – will be guarding the back.
Best new signing
That will be experienced striker Gary Hooper, who has scored more than 200 goals in his career. Much will be expected of him especially since Ogbeche has moved to Mumbai City FC.
Vicuna is tactically flexible but used the 4-2-3-1 formation at Bagan last season, which transitions into a 3-5-2 in attack and 4-5-1 in a defensive phase. Wingers and attacking wingbacks are key to his system in creating overloads on the flanks.
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