It is strange how Kolkata are the team affiliated with Atletico Madrid, but Kerala are the ones who look more like them (an ISL version of them, if you will). They are constantly soaking up pressure, sitting back and deep, rarely dictating play. Quick counters off turn-overs has been their style of play this season. Like Atletico, they relish the underdog status, and are most unhappy when they are expected to control the match and create the opportunities. Also, like the Madrid side, they are best at home, at their very own, loud and partisan Vicente Calderon. Kochi is the best place for them to win the title.
Kerala have conceded four goals in eight matches at home this season. And the final is a 'home' match, make no mistake about that. While Kerala's strength has been, without a doubt, their defensive shape and grit, they haven't entirely been without an edge up front when they play at Kochi either. Of the 13 goals they scored in the league stage, a scarcely believable 10 have come at home.
Coach Steve Coppell will line his men up in a familiar fashion, and more than individuals, his team rely on creating partnerships that work to foil the opponents' game across the field. His hand will be forced with one substitution though. With Josue ruled out of the final through suspension, the left-back slot will be up for grabs. And that will shape how the match goes for Atletico in front of the Kochi crowd.
The left side of the defence (Rino Anto or Pratik Chaudhary)
The last time Coppell was forced to replace Josue on the left, it was against NorthEast United FC, in a virtual quarter-final. Rino Anto was displaced to do the job for the Spaniard and was run ragged by Seityasen Singh for a large part of the match.
Against Atletico the man he will be up against is Javier Lara, who scored the winner the last time they came to Kochi. Lara was similarly destructive in the reverse fixture in Kolkata - although that was only till half-time. On the other hand, Pratik Chaudhary has started a few times for Kerala already this season and is a reliable, no nonsense wing back. In either case, Coppell will be forced to break up the Sandesh Jhingan-Cedric Hengbart partnership on the right of Kerala's defence. How the replacements do will matter.
Kervens Belfort/ CK Vineeth/ Duckens Nazon
If you asked the Blasters fans to select their dream scenario for the big night on Sunday, the vast majority would undoubtedly wish for an injury time winner from local lad CK Vineeth (Mohammed Rafique in injury time will come a close second). It is the trio of Kervens Belfort, Vineeth and Duckens Nazon though who will drive Kerala upfront.
This triumvirate has been prolific going ahead for the Blasters this season, scoring, between them over two-thirds of Kerala's goals. They complement each other perfectly. Vineeth is brilliant off the ball, and loves to open up defences with darting runs. Nazon is the real striker among the three and is always a nuisance for opponent defenders. Belfort, on the other hand, adds speed on the wing. Against Atletico, chances for Kerala will be few and far between. They would, more often than not, fall to and be created by these three.
In a fair world that wasn't tainted by humanity's constant desire to reward conquerors and scorers, Mehtab Hossain would be adjudged Kerala's best player of the season. In that fair world, Claude Makelele would be idolised at the Bernabeau. Hossain has made the most number of passes for Kerala this season (and fits in comfortably at number eight on the 2016 ISL list too) and has completed almost 77 percent of them. In addition, he is second on the Blasters' list of most tackles (one behind Hengbart with 38).
For a team that relies on absorbing pressure and releasing men on the counter-attack, this kind of a player is gold. His partnership with Azarack Muhamat will be key in the final. It is the kind of double pivot that is the hallmark of title-winning sides. When they click, everything is gold.
Updated Date: Dec 18, 2016 09:19:01 IST