In the short history of the Indian Super League (ISL), if there has been one team which has learnt to fight back in spite of being repeatedly boxed into corners, it’s the Kerala Blasters.
Battered and bruised at a similar stage last year, it hung on to the last available straw and ultimately ended up a finalist. Down and out this year after four successive losses, which even cost manager Englishman Peter Taylor his job, there suddenly seems to be a spring in its step even as it lies second from the bottom.
“There is plenty of confidence,” said head coach Terry Phelan ahead of his team’s match against bottom-placed Chennaiyin FC here on Saturday. “We have just come off a great result [4-1 vs. NorthEast].”
“Obviously, it’s very tight. For both teams it’s, perhaps, a must win. But we know what we need to do.”
Much of this has to do with a tactical tweak. Ever since it moved away from a three-man to a four-man defence four games ago, its performance curve has shot up. Chris Dagnall, in particular, has been a revelation up front, finding the net four times in the last five games.
“A change from the 3-5-2 formation has given our attackers more freedom,” explained assistant coach Trevor Morgan.
“Attacking players have to defend [too]. But, in 3-5-2, they have to work harder. In the present system, we have not given them much defensive responsibility. So we are saying go and stay high up the pitch and cause all the damage you can.”
A damage of that kind is surely something Chennaiyin will not want inflicted on them. A fourth loss on-the-trot will, in all probability, push it closer to elimination.
“We are back on track,” insisted manager Marco Materazzi. “Against Goa, there were many mistakes. Against NorthEast, there was a valid goal which wasn’t given. In Kolkata, we displayed a good game and I think at least one out of three penalties should have been given. So now the confidence level is high.”
In a way, Materazzi’s tinkering, though tactical, has come to resemble a roulette — a gambling game in which one bets on which slot of a rotating disk a small ball will come to rest in. Now, after completing a full circle, fortunes might yet again rest on the impressive trio of John Stiven Mendoza, Elano and Raphael Augusto.
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Materazzi when asked if the side was over-reliant on the trio and hence predictable. “When Jayesh [Rane] was playing, we scored four against Goa, a team that later scored seven goals [vs. Mumbai]. I would like all my players to be at optimum condition all the time, but that is not possible.”
On Saturday, he will have a chance to welcome Rane — someone who he thinks offers immense balance to the side — after an injury lay off. It might well be yet another roll of the dice. But another reverse might well sound the death knell.