The start of the 2021-22 season did not make for good reading for Kerala Blasters. Hoping to put on a good show after years of obscurity, Blasters were instead blown away by ATK Mohun Bagan in a 2-4 defeat in the curtain-raiser and the expectations came crashing down swiftly.
But that debacle proved to be the nudge that Vukomanovic and his players needed. The team went on a 10-match unbeaten run – beginning on November 25 with their second outing and going past the New Year into January – that set the tone for their impressive season.
That streak included crushing 3-0 victories against last season’s champions Mumbai City and Chennaiyin FC as well as a 1-0 defeat of their final opponents Hyderabad FC that propelled them to the top of the ISL table for the very first time since the inaugural 2014 season.
Their attacking trio of Adrian Luna, Alvaro Vazquez and Jorge Pereyra Diaz played a key role in blasting Vukomanovic’s side to the summit. While Diaz turned blood into sweat on the field, Vazquez managed to turn even half-chances into goals. Luna, meanwhile, was there to provide them with quality supply and score a few himself.
Kerala’s very own Sahal Abdul Samad also stepped up around the imports while the young midfield duo of Jeakson Singh and Puitea provided solid cover for the defence that was headlined by the experienced Marko Leskovic, but also featured 21-year-old Hormipam Ruivah and proven winner Harmanjot Khabra.
There were injuries along the way. Blasters missed captain Jessel Carneiro, first-choice goalkeeper Albino Gomes and Nishu Kumar for extended periods, but stand-ins like Prabhsukhan Singh Gill, Sandeep Singh and Ayush Adhikari took their chances and excelled.
“They were looking like the team to beat in January. But that Covid-19 outbreak cast serious doubts over their season,” said Indian football legend IM Vijayan. The pandemic restricted the entire Blasters squad to their hotel rooms for more than two weeks.
Blasters’ winning run ended on their return from isolation. “That is when Vukomanovic proved he is more than just a coach. He stood up for the players and rallied the troops. They never gave up and came out of the hiccup as a stronger team,” said Vijayan.
That second wind took Blasters into the play-offs. However, there is a feeling that Blasters are only getting started. They have stars who can make a difference, youngsters who have a large room for improvement and a system in place to dominate for years to come. And keeping the flock together will be the biggest task for the team management ahead of the next season.
How they will build on this season’s success will be an interesting watch for fans and pundits alike.