Looks like it will end the way it began. Kerala vs North East United FC (NEUFC). While the obvious, circle of life metaphors come to mind, it is important to remember, that maybe it won’t come to that.
NEUFC play Delhi on Thursday with their fate in their own hands. Lose, and Kerala will qualify for the playoffs.
There is a certain roundedness even to this. In the opening season, Kerala and Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) had finished even on points, but Kolkata edged ahead on the head-to-head count to finish third. The table looks to end that way now, unless NEUFC can conjure something special up.
The mood in the stadium — in sharp contrast to home games at Kochi — was sombre right from the start. The minute’s silence before the game was to mourn the Colombian air tragedy that killed several members of Chapecoense — the Brazilian club in the middle of a dream season before disaster struck. There was a fairytale in the writing, which ultimately was ripped apart by the accident.
It was a strange day to be playing football, but there everyone was, doing exactly that.
The mood of the crowd never really recovered thereafter. ATK haven’t been their best at home this season, bagging just one win at the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium, and they have two back-to-back fixtures in this critical period.
But, Kolkata needed just a point to go through, and anything other than a loss would suffice. That they have done well at home, drawing four out of their six games. Kerala, on the other hand, were happy simply to not lose.
Steve Coppell probably had that memo too, but instead of lying back he opted to changed things around a bit. He abandoned his double pivot of Azarack Mahamat and Mehtab Hossain in the hope that Ndoye and Ishfaque Ahmed’s skill would keep Kolkata’s attacking midfield in check.
On the attacking side, Rafi retained his place on the wing, courtesy of an impressive workman-like performance against FC Pune City, and on the opposite flank was Kerven Belfort, a man whose unpredictability is only matched by his enthusiasm. The Haitian is a bit of an enigma — superb and superbly wasteful all within twenty seconds. In the first half he was in the spotlight with some marvellous first touches, dropping defenders off and cutting in with ease. In the end though, his decision making would always let him down.
In the central striker's role was CK Vineeth, the man who sparked this renaissance as well as a home run that could land them in the playoffs. It was Vineeth who got the opener, a chance of Debjit Majumder’s making. The season has been lacking in goals, but not in goalkeeping gaffes, and this was the first time Kerala had been gifted one. If it ever fell to him, it was always going to go in.
While there may be a tendency to say whatever Vineeth is doing is of his own making, it would be taking away credit from those playing around him. Kerala’s wide players are doing a better job of playing off him, the likes of Belfort and Rafi profiting from his boundless energy while he hustles backlines, forcing mistakes. They are also looking to play the ball at him rather than swinging in aimless crosses, as they were at the start of the season.
As a result they are enjoying far more scoring opportunities, something that clearly added an edge to their play. Where at one point they couldn’t get enough shots away, they have, over the past few matches (barring a blip in Mumbai) constantly had more shots on target than their opposition.
When they faced Kolkata earlier this season, the Blasters had five shots on goal, but none on target. Tuesday's match saw them fire 12, half of them on target. On pure statistics, they are operating at the same scale, but the increase makes a huge difference.
Coppell will not mind how many shots it takes as long as his team keep scoring, and preferably early like they did on Tuesday. However, their efforts weren't enough, and the Englishman had hoped Kerala would play their 'second half' in the first period and they didn’t disappoint. This is only the third occasion they scored in the first half this season.
It is a completely different issue that there was almost nothing of note in the second half. Both teams were content with a solitary point.
There is a tendency to forget that footballers—as indeed any other sportsperson — are professionals. They perform a job and hope to do it well and effectively to ensure their bosses are happy. Grinding out positive results does exactly that.
This was no Disgrace of Gijon. There was no lack of effort from either side — evidenced by the number of bookings — only that of intent. Now all eyes are on Guwahati fixture on Wednesday. Can the 'Highlanders' keep this game going till the last match of the regular season? Or can the cast for the playoffs start rehearsing?
In an afterthought, one must mention the quartet of Jhingan-Hengbart-Hughes-Jossu or JHHJ (it shouldn’t always be forward partnerships that get abbreviations). These four haven’t lost a game playing together and conceded only their fourth goal playing together this season.
Last, but not the least, the goal is a talking point in itself. A touch of brilliance (three touches to be precise), one that quite easily could be the best team goal of ISL 2016.
Mehtab Hossain will be kicking himself. It was the most needless of yellows.
Updated Date: Nov 30, 2016 12:47:41 IST