Kerala Blasters will meet Atletico de Kolkata in the ISL 2016 final. It hasn’t been plain sailing for either of these two to get this far, and nor should it be. It is testament to the league that these two rivals – debut season finalists – are here again this year, but were far from the best teams in the league (a title that means nothing if you aren’t lifting the trophy, incidentally.) With a sea of yellow guaranteed to fill the stands on Sunday evening, a lot of the eyeballs will be on Kerala to get their redemption.
The Blasters didn’t have the greatest of starts, and if there had been any inkling of how far they’d really go, several nerves may have not frayed. But, like assistant coach Ishfaq Ahmed said, Steve Coppell’s “typical English mentality, and style, really helped us get through this season. It drilled into us resilience.”
Resilience has been one of their hallmarks this season. This is a team that plays from the back, and derives it confidence from its defensive lines. While the spectacular Nandy or Stack debate will continue forever, there is no argument to be made about the real heroes of this team — the four man shield.
Aaron Hughes wasn’t the most spectacular of marquee signings in the league, and a defender rarely gets pulses racing anyway. He isn’t the throw-your-body-at-the-attacker kind either. Hughes isn’t at the top of the list for tackles, interceptions, or aerial duels won in the league this season. But, if there were statistics that could accurately display how many times one doesn’t have to make a tackle or an interception because of forethought, the Northern Irishman would undoubtedly be leading. Just like the best of strikers find unavailable space, good defenders close it.
By his side has been Cedric Hengbart, the perfect foil. He is the Carles Puyol of this team – long hair streaking, blood pumping, adrenaline rising – who leads in all the defensive statistics that you throw at him. The Frenchman is enjoying a second coming, and in his second shot with the Blasters, he has made another final. A remnant of the 2014 team, he will look to set things right.
Steve Coppell was understandably cagey about revealing who would cover at left back in Jossu’s absence. The Englishman knows the immense nature of the problem, but sought to downplay it. “It happens. It’s the nature of the league and its condensed nature. We have to deal with it, and we will deal with it," he said. Of that there are no doubts. There are several able members eager to step in, and despite not having had enough of a run around, they could do so very smartly if needed.
Upfront though, Kerala have had their problems. They haven’t really scored many goals, and a lack of creativity in midfield has been their bane this season. Where they lack in brain though, they make up for with speed. ‘Blasters’ is an accurate description of their three pacey forwards, Duckens Nazon, Keren Belfort and CK Vineeth, who will shoulder almost all the burden of providing this game with a Keralan scoreline.
That is what the crowds will hope for. Kochi has been a fortress this season, and the Blasters have made this far only because of that. They have six consecutive wins here now, an ISL home form record, and have lost only once at home at all this season. That loss though came against Atletico de Kolkata.
One of Kolkata’s bigger advantages is the recovery period their players have had. Jose Molina was afforded the luxury of being able to rest the likes of Helder Postiga, Iain Hume and other regulars for the second leg of their playoffs in Mumbai.
This isn’t the Atletico we expected, be this is also the Atletico we have come to expect. Where, in the opening season, they were one of the most consistent performers and, in a sense most deserving of the title, this season, they have gotten this far because of a late resurgence.
The Kolkata side hold a clear advantage against their hosts when it comes to creativity in the middle of the park. Perhaps the best example of this came in the Kerala vs Kolkata game at the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium late this season. Kerala had the lead, and seemed to have settled into their hit and run pattern of play. Atletico pressed forward in numbers but to little effect.
Finally it took a moment of unbelievable coordination and precision to break that resilience though – Iain Hume, Javier Lara and Stephen Pearson combining with first time passes to score the equaliser. This is a team that can carve defenses open at will.
And with that flair also comes the calm presence of Borja Fernandes, the calmest sanest player the Kochi pitch will probably see. He isn’t merely a disruptor of play, he is also the conductor of their orchestra, pitching balls out for his forwards to play with.
Atletico haven’t been beaten by Kerala since that victory in the 2014 final, and even this season ,they were the only side the Blasters couldn’t overcome in their ride to the final.
Their form has been erratic and in their last five games, there have been only two victories. Those two victories though have been the ones that mattered. A late victory against Goa, effectively sealed a semifinal berth and the win against Mumbai set up a return to the final.
The sub plots are rarely fiercer (or more cliched) in games of this nature. The man who broke Kerala hearts in 2014 is a Mallu boy, and he is back with his home side. The man Kerala embraced and loved that season, their striker and talisman, has changed colours though and will be lining up for Kolkata this evening.
Hume is making a return too. Not just to Kochi — the team of his debut ISL season — but also to full form and lethal application. He has always been more prolific at the back end of seasons, and has regularly been the difference in the playoffs. A brace in the first leg, settled the tie. He may be the league’s highest scorer, but he hasn’t scored against Kerala ever. Coppell was hopeful, that this trend, ‘being an ex Kerala player’ would continue. But lethal marksmen are rarely filled with emotion, and don’t expect Hume on pass up on an opportunity to add the one feather missing in his ISL cap — the actual trophy.
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Updated Date: Dec 18, 2016 11:28:14 IST