ATTN Editors: From September 24, IANS is beginning an 8-part series on the teams participating in the Indian Super League (ISL) that begins on October 1.
By Debayan Mukherjee
Kerala Blasters, arguably the most low-profile team in the Indian Super League (ISL), will look to brush aside the disappointment of the previous season and start afresh under new coach Steve Coppell with their latest bunch of foreign recruits expected to provide some much-needed experience and solidity to their ranks in the upcoming edition of the cash-rich football tournament.
For Coppell, a former England international and Manchester United player who has also coached Manchester City among other clubs, it would be a formidable challenge to emulate or even go a step ahead of his fellow statesman David James who led and coached the Blasters to the final in 2014.
Coppell will also look to buck the trend of English coaches not finding their feet in ISL. James, Peter Reid, Peter Taylor, David Platt and Terry Phelan, for different teams, have all flopped.
In marquee player Aaron Hughes, a veteran of 36 years with the rich experience of playing for English Premier League clubs like Newcastle United and Aston Villa, Coppell has a man who is less a star, but more a utility footballer.
Hughes was part of Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad and turned out against the Ukraine and Germany in the group stages and opposite Wales in the pre-quarterfinal where they were knocked out of the competition.
Probably to push their cause this season, Blasters have made a number of signings in the foreign players department.
Besides Hughes, the team from Kochi have roped in defender Cedric Hengbart, goalkeeper Graham Stack, Azrack Mahamat, Duckens Nazon, Kervens Belfort, Didier Boris Kadio and Elhadji Ousseynou Ndoye. They have also brought back English striker Michael Chopra who was with them in the first edition.
Among the players retained, the yellow strips have rewarded English winger Antonio German and Spanish midfielder Currais Prieto for their good shows last season. Indian stars like Sandesh Jhingan, Mehtab Hossain, Sandip Nandy, Mohammad Rafi and Gurwinder Singh have also been given the thumbs up.
Blasters, the only team to not venture out for a pre-season last term, have been preparing in Thailand this season before coming to Kolkata.
The Sachin Tendulkar co-owned franchise, which lost the final of the inaugural season to Atletico de Kolkata, has had a change of ownership with Hyderabad-based media and entertainment house Prasad Group bagging 80 percent share of the franchise, while Tendulkar’s share has been halved to 20 per cent.
Blasters had a shambolic last season which was in complete contrast to their inaugural outing. Coached by former England U-21 coach Peter Taylor, who resigned midway due to poor performances, the yellow brigade shipped in 27 goals, the worst record in the league and a sharp departure from their 11 in 2014.
Injuries to crucial players marred their cause too. Marquee recruit Carlos Marchena picked up an injury early on in the season and had to fly back.
What hurt them more was in-form players Sanchez Watt and Antonio German missing important games due to niggling injuries. Gurwinder Singh was ruled out in the early stages of the tournament.
This time Blasters look a more settled unit with Hughes lending the experience at the back after returning from playing against top sides like Germany in 2016 Euro. India regulars Rino Anto and Sandesh Jhinghan are expected to play to their potential.
In midfield, Mohammed Rafique should also to come good along with Josue, who was one of the brighter players for them last time.
Thongkhosiem Haokip may emerge as Blasters’ trump card. The Manipur striker had a fabulous run last season with FC Goa, scoring four goals in six appearances and his knack of finding the back of the net might come good.
Keeper Stack, who coach Coppell has worked with at Reading, is also a seasoned campaigner.
By the first look of things, Coppell looks like building a team around his defence. Blasters can be a team who would want to hit on the counter and back their rearguard to bottle up rivals.
Blasters begin their campaign against Northeast United at Guwahati on October 1, the opening day of the Indian Super League’s (ISL) third season.
Goalkeepers: Graham Stack, Sandip Nandy, Kunal Sawant and Mohammad Moniruzzaman Ansari; Defenders: Aaron Hughes, Cedric Hengbart, Gurwinder Singh, Elhadji Ndoye, Pratik Chowdhary, Rino Anto and Sandesh Jhingan
Midfielders: Ishfaq Ahmed, Josue Currais, Mehtab Hossain, Mohammed Rafique, Prasanth Karuthadathkuni, Didier Boris Kadio, C.K. Vineeth, Azrack Mahamat and Vinit Rai
Forwards: Antonio German, Kevens Belfort, Michael Chopra, Mohammed Rafi, Thongkhosiem Haokip, Farukh Choudhary and Duckens Nazon.
(Debayan Mukherjee can be contacted at [email protected])