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Kerala Blasters Seek To End Winless Run Against NorthEast United

Thursday, 14 December 2017|Vineeth Krishnan

Four games in and the Kerala Blasters’ faithful are still waiting for the first big ‘W’. After three draws at home, the last of which saw the team score their first goal of the season and very nearly break their winless duck, the Blasters made the trip to Goa expectant of better things ahead, only to come away on the wrong end of a 5-2 mauling. To compound matters, Dimitar Berbatov was injured!

If panic has set in among sections of fans, they can take heart from manager Rene Meulensteen’s ebullient demeanor and his conviction that the first win is right around the corner. The team will welcome back CK Vineeth and possibly Iain Hume, with the prospect of Wes Brown getting his first competitive run out also on the horizon. Having deployed the aging legs of Berbatov and Arata Izumi in deeper positions to fill a hole in his squad’s options, it is possible that the former Manchester United assistant manager has devised an equally unorthodox solution to replace Berbatov, the midfield general. 

Whether this could mean Brown as DM or Lakic Pesic in the role with Brown further behind remains to be seen. It is all together possible that a switch to a back 3 including variations of Brown-Jhingan-Pesic or Lalruatthara-Jhingan-Pesic/Brown (depending on how many attacking foreigners the game strategy merits) could be seen soon, if not as early as the game against Northeast United on Friday.

This fifth round match has already started feeling like a must-win affair. With all but ATK and the Blasters having recorded at least one win, a small gap has already started to appear mid-table, with the ‘manjappada’ and their opponents caught on the wrong side of the drift. All four of the current playoff spots are occupied by sides with 9 points leaving the Blasters (on  3) and Northeast (on 4) with some catching up to do. A win at what is expected to be yet another jam-packed night at the Jawaharlal Nehru International stadium, would do nicely for both teams.

As Meulensteen admits, the match has a bit of a derby atmosphere to it. The Blasters have seven players from the Northeastern region on their side. Lalruatthara, Milan Singh, Loken Meitei and perhaps Siam Hanghal all stand a chance of being involved at some stage on Friday. Their assistant coach Thangboi Singto, previously managed Shillong Lajong, a club which initially was a partner in the Northeast franchise. Northeast United, on their part, have Malayali lad TP Reheneesh in goal. A tangential thread deepening the mood also is the Northeast region as a whole fast overtaking established football centers like Kerala in contributing players to Indian football, in the number of teams and even in passion for the game.

However, come match night, at least for the players and the support staff, the focus is on keeping cool. “It might be emotional but the important thing is that they (his players from the Northeastern region) don’t let their emotions run their game. The key is to stick to the plan that we have devised. There is emotional attachment because of where they come from,” said Meulensteen, who in the previous two games lost Vineeth to a red-card against Mumbai and then saw Lalruatthara lose his cool and walk a tight-rope for much of the second half against Goa. As he has stressed at multiple interactions with the media, errors dominate the ISL in that basic lack of concentration and communication directly lead to the maximum number of goals in what are generally close, cagy battles.

Northeast United suffered a narrow 1-0 reverse at home in their last match, at the hands of league leaders Bengaluru FC. Joao de Deus’ men have played attractive football without quite getting the results to show for them. The Highlanders have never won in Kochi before but with a win on the road against Delhi Dynamos already in their kitty this season, they will hold high hopes of breaking their personal duck in the South as well.

This game has all the hallmarks of being a high scoring affair, especially if the first goes in early. However, the way the ISL works, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the defenders and keepers shine and the forwards feel the heat, figuratively and literally. One way or the other, it could well be a case of who can outlast the other in this most unusual of all budding rivalries.