Kochi, Feb 11 (IANS) The Indian Super League (ISL) 2023-24 enters a new phase with Matchweek 15 kicking off with the clash between Kerala Blasters FC and Punjab FC at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi. Punjab FC resumed their ISL campaign after the mid-season break with a terrific 3-1 victory over Bengaluru FC at home.
That was only their second win in their maiden campaign in the top-tier and the team will be drawing confidence from that to take on the Yellow Army away from home. Kerala Blasters FC had edged past Punjab FC by a slender 1-0 margin, thanks to a Dimitrios Diamantakos penalty in the previous fixture between the two sides in New Delhi.
Ivan Vukomanovic and his team will hence be looking to do the league double over Punjab FC, and thus in the process become the first team to do so against them in the ISL.
Vukomanovic & Co. anyway need to recover from the 2-1 defeat to Odisha FC, which has complicated dynamics at the top of the points table. They will be backing themselves in the comfort of their home, against a team that is yet to win in an away fixture this season. Dealing with injury concerns to key players, the team faces an uphill challenge to sustain their momentum in the second half of this campaign. This is when Vukomanovic’s coaching acumen and pedigree come into play, as he has to ride over these challenges to put up a strong face against equally determined opponents.
The match is quite crucial for Kerala Blasters FC. Though the team from Kerala might be third in the standings, they have garnered 26 points from the first 13 games, which is their highest-ever tally after these many games in any ISL campaign.
The Blasters have won eight matches so far and that is the most number of matches they won at this stage in any season of the competition. With a strong Indian core and impactful foreigners, the team has it in them to go the distance and Vukomanovic seems keen to make that happen after falling short of the finishing line in the last few campaigns.
However, form is perhaps the most instrumental factor in determining the outcome of any such match, and they don’t have it on their side right now whereas Punjab FC does. The tactician will be relying on Diamantakos to take up additional duties upfront, especially in the absence of Adrian Luna and Kwame Peprah. With eight goals and two assists, the Greek forward has set the stage on fire and he will be keen to delight Manjappada yet again, come Monday.
After 10 winless games, Punjab FC have won twice in their last three league encounters. They now have their eyes set on bagging consecutive victories for the first time in the ISL, and a host of facets have come together to help them get some favourable results under their belt. Firstly, someone like Luka Majcen hasn’t been overburdened with goal-scoring duties, with Madih Talal and most recently Wilmar Jordan Gil chipping in at crucial junctures.
They need to work on starting games on the front foot, with Punjab FC being the only team failing to find the back of the net in the opening 15 minutes of any of their matches in this campaign. In contrast, Kerala Blasters FC have done that four times this season already, and their head coach Staikos Vergetis must be cognisant that the aforementioned phase of the match does not tilt the scales of the game against them.
Kerala Blasters will be looking forward to Pritam Kotal to hold them up in the upcoming match.
Kotal has been a highly influential signing for Kerala Blasters FC. The seasoned defender has helped them keep four clean sheets so far, making 12 tackles, 22 clearances, and 27 interceptions so far. He has made an average of 2.1 interceptions per game, which is the highest in the league for any player who has played an average of seven matches.
Kotal averages 34 passes per game with 73% accuracy and has seamlessly slotted in to become a leader at the back for the team. Punjab FC ran circles around the Bengaluru FC backline in the previous match, unlocking their defence and taking regular shots against them. Kotal will have to help his counterparts hold the defensive unit together, and Punjab FC will have to devise particular plans to overcome him in the game.
The man to watch for Punjab FC will be Madih Talal, who has been quite threatening to them upfront.
Punjab FC has sharp strikers in Gil and Majcen, but Madih Talal is someone who is even more threatening to the opposition because he can both set up and finish off goals. He has scored twice and assisted thrice in ISL 2023-24, and his involvement in the proceedings and stature has only been rising ever since.
His fleet-footedness has helped him win the most fouls (37) by any player in the competition. He has created an average of two goal-scoring opportunities per game, taking 29 shots in total.
Talal is a livewire in the frontline, donning a free-flowing role and breaking apart defences with his vision and sharp deliveries into the box. Whether he can recreate his magic in Kochi will be closely looked out for.
This will be the second-ever clash between the two teams. Kerala Blasters have won the only previous clash between the two teams.
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