ISL 2016: Kerala Blasters are the team that can ground high-flying Delhi Dynamos
The key for Kerala will also be how well their midfield pivots, Mehtab Hossain and Azarack Muhamat do to contain Delhi.
Kerala Blasters have effected a sensational turnaround in the third season of the Indian Super League (ISL). They looked lost after four matches, but have surprisingly and successfully broken the mega cities' hold at the top of the table. All of this with a negative goal difference, built on solidity at home.
The Blasters' success has been founded on their defence and they will face one of their sternest tests against Gianluca Zambrotta's Delhi Dynamos in the semi-final. They have conceded a mere four goals at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi this season and have been one of three teams to stop the free-flowing Dynamos. It will take a monumental effort to keep Delhi at bay in the semi-final. Delhi have never failed to score at home, and Kerala haven't scored too many away. But still, Steve Coppell's side are the one that you would bet on to take the Dynamos head on.
The key then for Kerala Blasters will be to take a lead and consolidate it in Kochi, and then hold on for dear life in Delhi. The situation they find themselves in is eerily similar to the one when they reached the playoffs, in the opening season in 2014. A victory would be no mean feat against a Delhi team comprising Marcelo, Richard Gadze and Kean Lewis, a trio whose combined total of 18 goals in the league stage is more than that of the entire Kerala side.
Kerala's main threat upfront are undoubtedly CK Vineeth and Kervens Belfort, who are predictably unpredictable and the only players in the side to have scored more than once this season.
The key for Kerala will also be how well their midfield pivots, Mehtab Hossain and Azarack Muhamat do to contain Delhi. They would look to play the spoiler in Delhi and force the issue in Kochi to gain passage into the final.
Kerala will take heart from their ability to fight back from tough situations, and be inspired by that fact that the final is at their fortress, but coach Coppell knows they will have to score and score first to have any impact in this battle. They are the team with momentum though, and if they can hold it for three more matches, the title will be theirs.
In any case, this has been a season full of ups and downs for Kerala, and a lot of Michael Chopra in the middle. Here are the highlights of the season for Kerala:
1. CK Vineeth dismissed talks of celebration
Vineeth quickly dismissed any talks of celebration after qualification for the playoffs. "No, no, we aren't going to celebrate. We rest and then prepare for the next game, and then next game and then final and then celebrate."
2. Most harmonious relationship
This is a toss up between Mehtab Hossain and Azrack Muhamat, and Sandesh Jhingan and Cedric Hengbart. Mehtab and Muhamat are the best of friends, and Jhingan and Hengbart love having the wind running through their hair, but they defend very well too.
3. Best goal
There's always something special about a late goal, and so one coming from a returning hometown hero in the 98th minute of a 99-minute game takes some beating. But this one does beat it. Zico won't be pleased about this. Nor should he be. You won't realise how good Belfort's goal really is, till you set it to a thavil and watch it again. Sit back and have a look.
4. Most inspired substitution
Boris Kadio for Michael 'Rocky' Chopra against Chennaiyin FC was probably the substitution that changed the season for Kerala. Chopra had been a regular prior to this game. Kadio's brilliance as a number 10 (only for that one game though) meant Coppell was finally willing to drop his compatriot and make way where there was one.
5. Best nutmeg
Duckens Nazon on Gourmangi Singh to score the opener against Pune City FC at Kochi. Gourmangi looked like he had it, and he probably would have a few years ago. Unfortunately he didn't, flapping at it with his legs, as the Haitian, calm as you like, passed it into the net.
6. Most unreal moment
Was it when Chopra scored his first-ever ISL goal against Mumbai City FC? Not really. Chopra had been steady in the beginning of the season, and had always looked like the player to break Kerala's duck. 'Rocky' bit came later in the season, but the most unreal moment was this. Not just because of its quality but also for its imagination. Seriously, how committed are Kerala fans!
7. Player of the season
8. Young player of the season
Hengbart. The 36-year-old with a 15-year-old son, who has played all but 23 minutes of Kerala's league campaign. The veteran Frenchman has the most tackles for Kerala this season, the second most interceptions and has won more aerial duels than any other player in the league. He is also Kerala's third highest goalscorer with... One goal. Second coming anyone?
9. Bonus prize: Best crossword creation
Don't you just love Kerala fans?
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