Margao, Dec 2 : FC Goa will host Kerala Blasters FC at the Fatorda Stadium on Sunday, as the top spot of the points table continues to shuffle between teams in the Indian Super League (ISL) 2023-24.
Two months into the campaign, the current ISL season has finally entered one of its most critical yet delicate junctures. This is the phase where top of the table teams, with little to separate them in terms of talent and temperament, clash to build distance from each other.
Under similar circumstances, Kerala Blasters FC travel to take on the Gaurs, with two of the arguably most profound sides from the season promising to play an entertaining blockbuster for the fans at Fatorda. Manolo Marquez and Ivan Vukomanovic are two coaches who have carved an impeccable impact in the ISL ever since they stepped foot in the league.
The two tacticians had famously faced off in the final of the 2021-22 campaign, where Marquez got the upper hand over Vukomanovic with his Hyderabad FC unit. That was the closest that the Kerala Blasters came to the ISL trophy that has eluded them since 2014.
However, the Serbian has regrouped his men to build a potentially title-winning unit this time around. The Kochi-based club has swept past its opponents in the league thus far, but a lot of it is also down to them playing six out of their eight games so far at their home ground.
Whether they create an advantage in their challenge away from home will be instrumental to them sustaining this incredible momentum they have generated up until now.
Their only loss of the season came in Mumbai against the Islanders, and they will be keen to avoid any such result against FC Goa given that the Gaurs are merely a point behind them in standings despite having played two matches lesser than the Tuskers.
Marquez got the right personnel to unfold his ideas on the pitch, with FC Goa having taken the most shots (76) from inside the box amongst all teams this season.
The presence of Odei Onaindia and Sandesh Jhingan bring in considerable aerial threat from set pieces, with the team averaging three headed shots in ISL 2023-24, again the most when compared to all teams. The inevitability of their wins so far has been due to their varied ways of testing the opposition, whether it comes from some free-flowing passing moves synonymous with Marquez or ruthless efficiency from free-kicks and corners.
With the perfect blend of experience in the likes of Brandon Fernandes and Noah Sadaoui to the youthful unpredictability of Jay Gupta, FC Goa have ticked all boxes in their pursuit of building the perfect ISL team. Up against them is an equally driven Kerala Blasters unit, and a victory here will not only be a morale booster for the Gaurs but also set the tone and expectations for every other team lined up to square off against them next.
Quite like FC Goa, Kerala Blasters FC have the phenomenal luxury of banking upon multiple creative forwards to address their goal-scoring needs. Vukomanovic was pleased with Kwame Peprah joining the party in the 3-3 draw against Chennaiyin FC in the last fixture.
Whilst skipper Adrian Luna has led their charge with aplomb, other players like Dimitrios Diamantakos, Danish Farooq, and Peprah have chipped in consistently to produce collective and cohesive winning efforts. That has resulted in the team recording the best differential between expected goals (9.38) and actual goals scored (13) this season (+3.62 xG value).
The addition of Pritam Kotal has bolstered their backline and is a delivering tangible result, with the former Mohun Bagan Super Giant player registering the most interceptions (16) by any player in the league so far. With such splendid synergy amongst all departments of the team, Kerala Blasters FC guarantee going toe to toe in this tussle against the home side.
The 22-year-old Jay Gupta of FC Goa has locked in 1.33 interceptions and clearances each, in addition to making 2.1 tackles, and scoring and assisting once each in ISL 2023-24. The fullback has been a livewire on the left flank, emerging as the standout revelation in the league. Jay has shown tremendous offensive prowess, and though he is quite industrious defensively, he has been dribbled past once per game on an average in six appearances so far.
Luna will be eyeing exploiting any shortcomings of Gupta on the backend of the pitch, and hence this match throws up an interesting dilemma in front of the FC Goa youngster. Will he compromise on his attacking prowess to keep things neat at the back? Only time will tell.
Adrian Luna of Kerala Blasters FC has recorded three goals and four assists in eight appearances in this campaign, as the Uruguayan international has been at the top of his game right from the start of ISL 2023-24. He has created over three goal-scoring opportunities per game, and been central to inspiring attacking moves that have led to regular, impressive results for Kerala Blasters FC.
The 31-year-old has attempted the second-most crosses (45) in the ISL and recovered possession 39 times in the middle and the final third, showing that he has been constantly at it in terms of both building up and finishing off attacking moves. Luna will have to lend a hand on both ends of the pitch, and be the leader that his players look up to in case they get trailing at any point in the contest.
“We created a lot of goal-scoring chances. We didn’t score and I felt from the bench that we didn’t have total control over the game. Even though they created fewer chances than us, my opinion was that we had to score before; if it happened in the first half then things could have been different in the second one. But, at least the team was clever. They played in the correct position and they improved with substitutions,” FC Goa head coach Manolo Marquez reflected on the narrow 1-0 win that his team managed over Jamshedpur FC in their last fixture.
He stressed on the importance of maintaining absolute stronghold over the game, and it will be fascinating to see if that happens against the Tuskers.
“I always look at these things as long-term things. In the first season in the bubble in Goa, after 10 games we were sitting at 17 points. Last year, after eight games we had fewer points than now. We look at this as a constant process to continue, especially from the start of the competition. In the long term we want to be a team that can always be at the top of the table, fighting for the top spots, not forgetting our goals as a club and as a team,” Kerala Blasters FC head coach Ivan Vukomanovic addressed the prospect of sealing their spot at the top of the table post this match.