Atletico de Kolkata were crowned the Indian Super League champions for the second time in three seasons when Jewel Raja’s successful penalty helped Atletico overcome a dogged Kerala Blasters side following a 1-1 draw after extra time. Here are the biggest takeaways from the ISL final:
Display in the final, a mere extension of both club’s footballing ideologies
As soon as Alireza Faghani blew the final whistle at the 90th minute with the scores tied at 1-1, Atletico de Kolkata made history with Jose Molina’s side drawing for the tenth occasion (in seventeen matches). In the brief history of the ISL, no other club had drawn so many matches in a single season.
A popular belief among the supporters of the losing semifinalists of the third season is that neither of the two most exciting sides of the league stage qualified for the ultimate showdown, and the two finalist clubs, circumspect as ever, did nothing to denounce that notion.
On a night, when a ‘sea of yellow’ took over the stands at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi, which has catered to packed houses through the tournament, the quality of football on display was similar to the one Steve Coppell has witnessed first-hand on a cold Sunday evening during his time in England.
The tone of the game was set as early as the eighth minute when Kerala countered from an Atletico corner through a clever run from Duckens Nazon. CK Vineeth’s poor touch in a 3-vs-3 situation helped Atletico break off the move and devise a counter-attack of their own. Lalrindika Ralte’s pinpoint long ball found Iain Hume (running off the shoulders of Aaron Hughes and Cedric Hengbert) at the edge of the 18-yard-box but Hume’s heavy touch took the ball out for a goal-kick.
Atletico once again outshot their opponents, but both clubs registered four shots on target, the visitors’ marquee signing Helder Postiga being particularly wasteful in the final third. Kervens Belfort was the Blasters’ standout attacking player for Steve Coppell’s side looked to threaten Debjit Majumdar’s goal whenever the Haitian received the ball on the left flank.
Kerala Blasters won the midfield battle of the night
Kerala Blasters went in with a 4-1-4-1 formation to counter Atletico’s two deep central midfielders who had taken the game away from Mumbai City FC just a few days back. As Coppell’s side pressed Borja and Jewel Raja high up the pitch, forcing them to misplace passes, the supply for Atletico’s front four was severely hampered.
Mehtab Hossain was stellar in midfield with six tackles and two blocks, apart from 43 passes and four crosses – his immaculate corner had brought in the Blasters’ goal in the thirty seventh minute. The Atletico central midfield grew into the match as the game progressed, with Borja and Jewel Raja completing nine tackles, four blocks and five interceptions between them.
While Doutie and Ralte were effectively isolated on either wing, Postiga’s poor display meant the Kolkata club had to contend with a disjointed midfield for majority of the game. With Borja resorting to attempting long balls behind the Blasters defence, thereby losing possession, Atletico rarely dominated the middle third during transitions until Molina substituted Javier Lara for Postiga.
A game devoid of individual brilliance
For a match involving the likes of Sameehg Doutie and CK Vineeth – proven goalscorers and chance creators in a rich vein of form, the final was defined by a distinct lack of superlative footballing moments. With both managers prioritising to stay compact at the back right from kick-off and the humid atmosphere sapping players of energy as the game progressed, the 54,000-strong crowd was devoid of in-game dramatic occurrences.
The fact that the clubs were playing a match of enormous proportion for the third time in a week took a toll on both squads – with Kerala’s Aaron Hughes and Atletico’s Keegan Pereira forced to be substituted in the first half itself.
While a number of counter-attacking manoeuvres were orchestrated by both clubs, mostly through the wide channels, the final ball was often lacking. Mohammed Rafi’s thumping header as well as Henrique Sereno’s equaliser came from set-piece situations – due to man-marking errors by Pritam Kotal and Sandesh Jhingan. While the Kerala Blasters forward timed his run perfectly, the Atletico defender overpowered his Indian counterpart with sheer physical strength.
Penalty shootout acts as ‘Kingmaker’
The last time these two clubs faced each other at this stage, a late goal from Mohammed Rafique (a Kerala Blasters player now) had broken hearts across the state, with two current Atletico players
Iain Hume and Stephen Pearson (both of whom played significant roles in Kerala’s amazing run in the first season) experiencing the bitter taste of defeat. Hume, the all-time top scorer of the Indian Super Leagu,e was bound to have recalled that dreaded feeling moments after he missed the first penalty in Atletico’s shootout. The Canadian (also ATK’s regular penalty-taker) tends to thrive under pressure but came up short against Graham Stack. His team-mates, however, did not miss from the spot with Doutie, Borja and Lara burying each of their penalties.
Unlike a popular myth, penalty shootouts are more than sheer luck and Debjit Majumdar had done his homework. With the exception of Antonio German’s penalty, Majumdar had jumped in the right direction for all other spot kicks.
The Indian goalie has been an integral aspect of the Atletico team all through the season and his save off Hengbart in Kerala’s final penalty made all the difference. As history repeated itself, the Yellow Army and their fans were once again destined for heartbreak, but Iain Hume and Stephen Pearson were not.
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Updated Date: Dec 19, 2016 10:13:47 IST