After a majorly disappointing second season which saw them changing three coaches, conceding 27 goals and finishing second from the bottom, Kerala Blasters will look for a fresh start in ISL 2016. Former Manchester United player and Reading manager Steve Coppell is in charge this year for Sachin Tendulkar's franchise.
The Englishman has overseen a transfer window where Kerala have bolstered their defence – a constant source of worry last season – and added a reasonable mix of old and new hands. Here's a list of players to watch out for:
Sandesh Jhingan: The "Emerging Player" of the 2014 edition of the tournament, Jhingan has, over the past two years, cemented his place in the national side, and is virtually indispensable in the Kerala defence. The Chandigarh-born defender was, however, injured for a significant part of the 2016 I-League, and made only seven appearances for DSK Shivajians in the season, something that may concern the coach.
One of Coppell's big decisions will have to be regarding his defensive personnel. With two foreign internationals (Aaron Hughes and Cedric Hengbart) comfortable in the centre of defence, there is a strong chance that Jhingan will shift to the left - a position he has been happy to fill for his team before. It is a versatility that will please Coppell.
Rino Anto: This season will be a homecoming for the Thrissur-born Anto, although it may be a bit delayed. Anto will join the Blasters a little later in the campaign (and if Bengaluru FC make it to the AFC Cup final, Anto will miss half of Kerala's group stage) and yet, he could be vital for the team. Pratik Chaudari will fill the gap on the right side of Kerala's defence in Anto's absence. Anto was a prominent feature of Atletico de Kolkata's defence last season as they reached the semifinals.
Besides his defensive abilities, Anto, a modern full-back, is good on the ball and on the wings in the attacking third. His speed and technique is expected to speed up Kerala's transitional play.
Cedric Hengbart: He was an inspirational, yet understated figure at the back for Kerala in the inaugural season, as they marched to the final.
The Frenchman completed 88.2 percent of his passes from the back that season, and was one of the key components of a team that built largely from the back, led as they were by former England international David James in goal. He kept up his impressive performance last season too, even if it was for NorthEast United FC, ending up as their best defender, with most headers and interceptions in the team.
Hengbart will be even more formidable when he lines up with Aaron Hughes in the centre of Kerala's defence. For a team which has had a leaky defence, two big European defenders can only be a blessing.
Antonio German: He was a star for Kerala in attack last season, notching up six goals and three assists in a devastating partnership with Chris Dagnall. Dagnall's absence this season, means German will be partnering either Mohammed Rafi or Thongkoisiem Haokip upfront. The two Indians have speed and experience, but may lack the out-and-out scoring instict that the Englishman possesses.
One of German's responsibilites will be to take the burden off the lead striker, a tag he avoided when playing with Dagnall last season. Haokip's speed and efficiency in the box may also make him the ideal foil for German, with the hope that the two can link up well.
German's speed and sheer physicality allows Coppell the option of playing a single striker and shore up his midfield. With an entire ISL season under his belt, Kerala will be hoping the 24-year-old German can continue to deliver for the team.
Vinit Rai: A product of the Tata Football Academy who was spotted and subsequently picked up by former Dempo SC coach Arthur Papas, Rai has for long been considered the future of Indian football.
A nimble-footed, tactically sound player, the Assam boy lit up the I-League in 2015, despite Dempo's relegation. This is his debut season in the ISL, and the first time he will experience the big crowds, the pressure and the sheer weight of expectation in bigger matches.
Playing alongside experienced campaigners like Mehtab Hossain and Josu Currias in midfield will add to his growth. Any match time will be valuable to him, and if he can latch on to his place, there will nothing better for him and Kerala, and also, in terms of the larger picture, for India.
First Published On : Oct 1, 2016 10:55 IST