September 27, 2021

Kerala Blasters shore up defence with foreign centre-back duo

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Kerala Blasters have two defenders who have been part of trophy-winning defences…

For a football club, the good thing about getting a good young player who can stay with the club for many years is that they can be heavily involved in his development into a star. But the only downside is when he leaves, the team might struggle to find a proper replacement. 

Kerala Blasters are in that situation now. They’ve had the services of Sandesh Jhingan right from the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) but after the sixth season ended, they said goodbye. Jhingan, a national team regular and one of the best centre-backs in India right now, has left a gaping hole in a defence that already had a lot of holes. 

In the last three ISL seasons, Blasters have conceded 82 goals in 54 matches, 1.5 goals per game. They have only scored 64, 1.2 goals per game in the same period. Heading into the seventh season, newly-appointed sporting director Karolis Skinkys and head coach Kibu Vicuna have decided to shore up the teams’ defence by adding two reputed foreign centre-backs. 

A foreign centre-back duo is not new at Blasters. Aaron Hughes and Cedric Hengbart formed a good partnership at the back to lead the team into the final of the competition in 2014. Then as Jhingan evolved into a tough-tackling defender, he became a mainstay in that defence. Last season, with Jhingan out injured, Eelco Schattorie brought in Jairo Rodrigues and Gianni Zuiverloon and the former was replaced by Vlatko Drobarov due to another season-lasting injury. 

Jhingan’s presence freed up a foreign player slot in the first team that coaches could then use in the midfield and attack. However, going by the team’ defensive displays, that approach clearly has not worked. Vicuna will have two experienced defenders in Costa Nhamoinesu from Zimbabwe and Bakary Kone from Burkina Faso who are both eager to step onto the field. 

Kone and Nhamoinesu will both need to regain match fitness as quickly as possible and it will be key to Blasters’ getting off to a good start in the seventh season of ISL. Kone last played an official game in May 2019. Costa, after playing 15+ league games every season for Sparta Praha in the Czech League until 2019, featured in only nine league games during a pandemic-hit 2019-20 season. 

What makes them a good fit at their new club is that they both are players who have been part of teams who have won trophies. It is said that defences win titles and both these African footballers have played key roles in achieving silverware at their previous clubs. 

Only a few months ago, Costa capped off his stint in the Czech Republic with a trophy. The 34-year-old was on the bench as Sparta Prague beat Slovan Liberec 2-1 to win the Czech Cup. That was Costa’s second Czech Cup trophy after winning the same in 2014 in his debut season in the Czech Republic. In his seven seasons in Prague, he has become a league champion, won Czech Cup twice and has a Super Cup trophy as well. 

If a fully match-fit Kone can add grit to the Blasters defence, then teams won’t find it easy to score against Blasters. The man from Ouagadougou also arrives with plenty of experience of playing against top teams with lethal strikers in the Champions League and Ligue 1.

Aside from winning Trophee des Champions and Coupe de France (twice), Kone played every single minute of his national team’s African Cup of Nations 2013 campaign in South Africa. Burkina Faso lost the final 0-1 to Nigeria but their defence conceded only three goals in that tournament. 

Blasters also have Indian alternatives at central defence but given their recent displays, it remains to be seen if any of them can stake a claim to be a first-team regular this season. With both flanks locked in by Nishu Kumar and Jessel Carneiro, these two foreign centre-backs, once fully match fit, won’t make life easy for the league’s most lethal attackers.