Kochi: For Kochi Blasters, the campaign in the second edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) starts on Tuesday when they take on North East United FC (NEFC), with the presence of cricket icon and co-owner Sachin Tendulkar in the stands expected to give the players and home fans some much needed adrenalin.
The weather has played truant in recent days with rains at regular intervals, and with thunderstorms forecast for Tuesday a free flowing match is most unlikely. However, unlike other ISL teams, Kerala Blasters had their entire pre-season build-up in their home state and have been well acclimatised to the vagaries of the weather. This could be an advantage for them. The 26-member squad is coached by Englishman Peter Taylor, who has had outings at the highest level, first as a player and then as a popular coach. However, the team will miss its marquee player Spaniard Carlos Marchena, a 2010 World Cup winner as he was forced to return home with an injury suffered during practice.
Compared to the inaugural season, the present Kerala Blasters team looks weak on paper. Last season, after losing their opening fixture to the very same side that they play on Tuesday, the team came back strongly surprising one and all. They edged out strong favourites Chennaiyin FC 4-3 on aggregate in the two-legged semi-finals before losing the final to Atletico de Kolkata by a whisker. Last season, their main lacunae appeared to be the lack of a finisher and this time under Taylor, the team appears confident that it is not banking on one or two players but would be performing as a unit.
Among the young talent which the Blasters are hoping will do the trick are full back Sandesh Jhingan, who was named as the emerging player of the first edition, Peter Ramage (England), Bruno Perone (Brazil) and goalkeeper Stephen Bywater, and national players like Cavin Lobo and Peter Carvalho. For NEFC, who finished last in the first edition, pride is at stake, as their fans want them to do better, and NEFC feel this time that things will be different. The team and its owners expect their new manager Cesar Farias to repeat some of the success of his distinguished career with the Guwahati-based outifit.
The 42-year-old is the only manager to have ever taken the Venezuelan national team to the semi-finals of the Copa America when they finished fourth in 2011. Coming to their squad, they seem to have a healthy mix of youth and experience. They have a talented marquee player in former Barcelona winger Simao Sabrosa. They also have quite a few talented foreigners from the African continent including players from Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal and Zambia. But with close to 50,000 home fans cheering their team, the presence of Sachin Tendulkar is certain to give a torrid time to the NEFC and the weather is also going to be a key factor. With the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium claiming to have an excellent drainage system, the organisers hope the ground would not be slippery.