ISL 2019/20, Kerala Blasters Preview: KBFC off to yet another 'fresh' start in search for identity
For five years now, Kerala Blasters fans in Kochi have been called the '12th man'. This is a hollow phrase. When the team's performances have never instilled fear in opponents, the fans barely have a role to play.
Only once in six seasons at KBFC has the manager from the previous campaign continued in the dugout for the next one.
Nigerian striker Bartholomew Ogbeche will be the key figure in the team. His 12 goals under Schattorie were vital in NEUFC's semifinal run last season
Kerala Blasters' first target should be to find its footing and play football that is pleasing to watch.
Another fresh start? It is almost a routine at Kerala Blasters (KBFC), an Indian Super League (ISL) team still struggling to form an identity.
Only once in six seasons at KBFC has the manager from the previous campaign continued in the dugout for the next one. That was David James last season, the Englishman having signed a three-year contract only to be sacked mid-season after a poor run of results (winless in 11 matches).
KBFC have employed eight different managers (including interim ones) in five seasons, the most by any ISL club. Only twice has a manager completed the season. This merry-go-round hasn't helped the club settle into an identity or even a plan in the long run.
Six of their eight managers have been British and another -- Dutch manager Rene Meulensteen -- was known for his time at English club Manchester United. On the pitch, the football has been very British too: plenty of thunder, no style or substance.
New manager and optimism
This season, enter manager number nine: Eelco Schattorie, a Dutch manager who is more than familiar with Indian football and someone who, at least on the evidence of the past, offers something different from his predecessors.
Schattorie was the manager of NorthEast United FC (NEUFC) last season, where he guided the Guwahati-based club to its first-ever playoffs. A few years ago, Schattorie had managed two Kolkata-based I-League clubs Prayag United (now called United SC) and East Bengal. And there is nothing like Kolkata to prepare you for life in Indian football.
He is outspoken, confident and incisive -- which is evident in his media interactions. He is a fan of European clubs Barcelona and Ajax, which are a source of inspiration for him to set his teams up to play entertaining football -- something KBFC fans desperately want to see. Even in the seasons in which the club reached the final, the football on the pitch was dreadful to watch.
"My style of play is the same everywhere - attacking football," Schattorie had said after joining KBFC. But he is also shrewd in his management. This was visible in how the manager handled the injury and suspension crisis at NEUFC last season, in addition to the lack of proper preseason, and still made the playoffs. This skill will be needed again after the club's captain Sandesh Jhingan suffered an ACL injury that will likely rule him out of the entire season.
Schattorie's arrival has thus been a source of optimism among fans. So has the change in management at the club, with former CEO Viren D'Silva returning to the club in the same position. KBFC need stability and positivity. They are still recovering from the embarrassment of fans boycotting the team last season in protest against the club's management.
Possible solution to striking woes
Nigerian striker Bartholomew Ogbeche will be the key figure in the team. His 12 goals under Schattorie were vital in NEUFC's semifinal run last season, and you could say it was his injury in the first leg of the semifinal against Bengaluru FC, which meant he was out of the second leg, that proved decisive.
KBFC have had a dreadful goalscoring record. Even in the seasons it reached the playoffs, the team scored only nine goals (the league's lowest) in 2014 and 13 goals in 2016 in 14 matches in the league stage. Last season, the goal tally was 18 goals in 18 matches.
Simply put, KBFC have bored their fanatical fanbase and the Schattorie-Ogbeche combo could spare them more pain. Whether the rest of the squad can feed Ogbeche -- who thrives as a goal poacher especially from crosses -- remains to be seen.
Squad revamp: new offensive line
At least KBFC has Messi.
Cameroonian Raphael Messi Bouli, who could play upfront with Ogbeche or on the left wing, is part of a fully revamped attacking line-up. Out went Matej Poplatnik, CK Vineeth and Slavisa Stojanovic. In came Ogbeche, Messi, Mohammed Rafi, who was with Chennaiyin FC, and Rahul KP, who was part of India Under-17 World Cup team followed by Indian Arrows.
Behind these, defensive-minded midfielder Mario Arques and attacking midfielder Sergio Cidoncha are two major additions. These two Spaniards were the bedrock of Jamshedpur FC's campaign last season. Also added to the squad are central midfielders Mouhamadou Gning, a Senegalese new to Indian football, Jeakson Singh, the Under-17 World Cupper, and Darren Caldeira, from Mohun Bagan.
We are blessed to have an ardent fan community backing us. Can’t wait to see you guys supporting us from the stands at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kochi! @KeralaBlasters @kbfc_manjappada #YennumYellow #KeralaBlasters pic.twitter.com/SSqJxto3j4
— Lalruatthara (@Ruatthara39) October 17, 2019
Seityasen Singh, who offered Schattorie "speed and creativity" on the wings at NEUFC, Samuel Lalmanpuia, previously captain and star forward player of I-League club Shillong Lajong are other notable additions to the offensive armoury.
Popular Kerala-born midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad, of course, remains the player fans want to watch the most. It's a burden of expectations he must shoulder carefully.
KBFC have three new goalkeepers. Bilal Khan, a top performer with I-League's Real Kashmir FC last season, has joined along with two Kerala-born custodians Shibinraj Kunniyil, who was with I-League's Gokulam Kerala FC, and TP Rehenesh, who was with Schattorie at NEUFC. Last season's popular number one Dheeraj Singh moved to ATK.
In defence, the foreign arrivals are Dutchman Gianni Zuiverloon, who played in centre-back and defensive midfielder positions for Delhi Dynamos, and Brazilian Jairo Rodriguez, a centre-back signed from Indonesia's top league.
Aside from these two, left-back Jessel Carneiro, who captained Goa in the Santosh Trophy, and versatile defender Raju Gaikwad, as a replacement for the injured Jhingan, have joined the existing Indian contingent -- which comprises the likes of full-backs Lalruatharra, Mohamad Rakip and Abdul Hakku.
The season ahead
It is hard to predict a team's campaign with so many new parts, plus a major injury setback even before the start. Kerala will need plenty of luck to reach the playoffs. An injury-free Ogbeche, for starters, would help a lot. But the team's first target should be to find its footing and play football that is pleasing to watch. This is a club that needs fans on its side.
For five years now, KBFC's fans in Kochi have been called the "12th man". This is a hollow phrase. It has no weight. When the team's performance has never instilled fear in opponents, the fans have barely had a role to play.
This is what needs to change first at KBFC. Success will follow.
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