After three disappointing seasons, Kerala Blasters are determined to put up a good show in the seventh edition of the Indian Super League (ISL), which kicks off in Goa today.
The match is scheduled to begin at 7.30 pm at the GMC Stadium in Bambolim. The entire 2020-21 edition of the ISL will be played behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their opponents in the opening match are ATK Mohun Bagan, a new club formed through the merger of two football giants in Kolkata - Mohun Bagan and ATK.
Last year, the Yellow Brigade had beaten the erstwhile ATK by 2-1 in the inaugural match, but they could not carry forward the momentum as they lost seven of the 18 games in the league and won only four matches, finishing seventh in the 10-team points table with 18 points.
High on confidence
Over the past three seasons, Rene Meulensteen, David James, Nelo Vingada, and Eelco Schattorie had all tried to propel them into the playoffs without success.
Blasters will be heading into the new season with a revamped squad and a new coach at the helm - Spaniard Kibu Vicuna - who guided Mohun Bagan to their final I-League glory.
They have managed to bring together a compact team with most of the bases covered. The only foreigner retained by Blasters from last season is Spanish attacking midfielder Sergio Cidoncha. Of the six new overseas players brought in by them, none have prior experience of playing in the ISL.
The team's new foreign recruits are Zimbabwean defender Costa Nhamoinesu, Burkina Faso centre-back Bakary Kone, Spanish defensive midfielder Vicente Gomez, Argentinian midfielder/striker Facundo Pereyra, English centre-forward Gary Hooper, and Australian striker Jordan Murray.
Full-back Nishu Kumar, who joined from Bengaluru FC, is the most notable Indian signing.
Lethal attacking forces
Their attack, spearheaded by the 32-year-old Hooper, who represented Scottish giants Celtic in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, is a perfect mix of experience and youthfulness. His partner up front will be the 25-year-old Murray, a vastly experienced A-League player and an excellent goal-getter.
Young winger Nongdamba Naorem, who worked with Vicuna at Mohun Bagan last year, and former Shillong Lajong FC striker Shaiborlang Kharpan are the two Indians in their forward line-up.
The strong midfield has two Spaniards in Gomez and last season's standout performer Cidoncha. Gomez has played for Las Palmas and Deportino La Coruna in the top two tiers of Spanish football.
The unknown entity in the squad is Argentinian Pereyra. A creative midfielder who plied his trade in the Chilean, Mexican, Argentinian, and the Greek leagues, the 33-year-old can also play as a striker.
Blasters have also done well to retain Keralites Sahal Abdul Samad, Rahul K P, and K Prasanth to fortify their midfield.
A defence sans Jhingan
Definitely, the absence of star defender Sandesh Jhingan, who moved to ATK Mohun Bagan, will be felt, but Blasters have an experienced centre-back pairing.
The 34-year-old Costa, who will captain the side, is known for his man-marking ability and aerial prowess. His former clubs include Polish side Zaglebie Lubin and Czech side AC Sparta Prague.
The 32-year-old Kone is the third most capped player for Burkina Faso, with 81 international appearances. He has also been a first-team regular for popular Ligue 1 club Olympique Lyonnais. Although he did not get much game time at Arsenal Tula in the Russian Premier League where he last played, Kone is expected to be a pillar of strength in Blasters' backline
Young Indians Lalruatthara and Nishu Kumar will operate through the wings. Jessel Carneiro, who established himself as an integral part of their defence in the previous season, might also get a chance in the playing XI.
Blasters do not have much depth in the goalkeeping department. Last season's first-choice keeper T P Rehenesh has moved to Jamshedpur FC. Bilal Khan, who was Rehenesh's deputy last year, will be their main shot-stopper. The other three in the line-up - Alibino Thomas, Prabhsukhan Singh Gill and Muheet Khan - are talented but lack experience.
Kibu Vicuna is a shrewd tactician and an exponent of high-tempo and attractive football. The 49-year-old had managed a number of clubs in his native Spain and Poland before he joined Mohun Bagan. The Spaniard used the 4-2-3-1 formation at Bagan last season, but is tactically flexible.
Goalkeepers: Albino Gomes, Bilal Khan, Prabhsukhan Singh Gill, and Muheet Khan.
Defenders: Costa Nhamoinesu, Nishu Kumar, Bakary Kone, Jessel Carneiro, Sandeep Singh, Abdul Hakku, and Lalruatthara.
Midfielders: Sergio Cidoncha, Sahal Abdul Samad, Vicente Gomez, Seityasen Singh, Rahul KP, Givson Singh, Lalthathanga Khawlhring, Yendrembam Denechandra, Nongdamba Naorem, Arjun Jayaraj, Ayush Adhikari, Jeakson Singh, Prasanth Karuthadathkuni, Ritwik Das, and Rohit Kumar.
Forwards: Gary Hooper, Jordan Murray, Facundo Pereyra, Naorem Mahesh Singh, and Shaiborlang Kharpan