It is surprising how two of the more laid back cities, holiday destinations both, with a penchant for the languid and the lazy, threw up possibly the most dramatic of encounters in the ISL 2016 on Tuesday night. The quality of that drama was top notch. Two sending offs (both protested absurdly), a lot of fighting (almost), last minute heroics from the prodigal son, and a home victory. If last night’s script had been written into a novella, it would’ve been rejected outright as a cliché.
This was Kerala’s most emphatic attacking performance to date, and the fact that it came in a game where they were up against nine men is telling. It is also telling, that they have now managed more shots on goal in one game (on and off target) than they have the entire season.
Steve Coppell may be delighted with the three points, but he should be appalled at how long it took to get them. Despite the numerical advantage, and the high attacking statistics, the truth is that Kerala didn’t really create much for the victory.
Coppell took a cue and brought back a trusted team for their first home fixture in ages. With Aaron Hughes off for Northern Ireland, Sandesh Jhingan and Cedric Hengbart were paired up in the centre (a decision that makes you wonder why this wasn’t so in Delhi) and Pratik Choudhary filling Jhingan’s role on the right. The one change was strange, but perhaps not as baffling as it made out to be initially: Graham Stack replaced Sandip Nandy in goal.
It was almost as if Coppell was desperate to not compromise on his six foreigner ratio. But it also perhaps made sense. Nandy was partially at fault for the goals in Delhi, and Stack had been warming the bench for a while. It didn’t hurt anyone to give them a shuffle.
Except, it almost did. No matter how you look at it, that was some dreadful goalkeeping. Jossu isn’t absolved of his guilt—ball watching—but Stack will never want to see that again. That was the ninth minute of the match, and it was essentially when the ‘Comedy in Kochi’ began.
In Kerala’s technical staff serves a man called Wally Downes. In the 1980s, Downes served as an apprentice at Wimbledon FC, a team best known for either this or having provided shelter to this. Downes is cited as being one of the main instigators of the Crazy Gang spirit at the club (for more look here) and even he would probably agree, that the bunch at Wimbledon put a better footballing display than this.
This was great drama, no one said anything about the football. At most times the football was poor, horribly unsophisticated and unexpected at this level. For this fingers may be pointed mostly in the direction of Goa, but what’s the point, they will probably surround and nastily threaten you if you do.
There is no doubt that there will be repercussions for the visiting side in coming days, for not just what they did at the final whistle but also what they were constantly doing before it. If they make it to the play-offs from here, it’ll be nothing short of a miracle. What their protests were about, only they know. Arnolin’s sending was harsh sure but unfortunately bound to the rule book. Even in slow motion you can see that hand, stepping out and then stepping in the way of the ball. As for Richarlyson, the less said the better. At no point of time can a player expect to tackle another with two feet and not take a booking. It wasn’t just two feet mind you, he slid in as if he were strapping himself into a sled.
From Kerala’s point of view, it wasn’t much better either. It is bewildering how, once they were two men up, they actually looked less likelier winners than before. Their play was haphazard, almost like they didn’t know what to do with so much space, and it took till injury time for them to discover that the way to get through a packed box is by causing confusion by numbers.
At the heart of almost all of their play was Kervens Belfort, a man who can look breathtaking and bewildering at the same time. He has now built up a reputation against Goa, scoring a belter against them in Margao, and delivering a ‘Crazy Gang’ masterclass of sorts yesterday in Kochi. There was everything, from superb stepovers, botched and bungling mishits including once when was almost caught with his pants around his knees. Literally.
His play came mostly from the centre in the first half and although reaped no results, definitely picked Kerala up majorly. Linking up with Rafique on the right and Michael Chopra deeper back, he gave them speed and guile in the attacking third. His finishing though leaves a lot to be desired. It may suit Coppell to deploy the Haitian in Chopra’s place now, and with Vineeth back, use that speed on the wing.
As for Vineeth, its been a crazy three days for him now. He’s played a full AFC Cup final, dealt with a loss, debriefed from Bengaluru and landed in Kochi, to score a vital goal on his first appearance of the season. Maybe this is where it will all turn and go crazy. If they can take maximum points of their next three home games, then Kochi certainly will. But then, they always do.