Come Sunday, December 18, 2016, the final of the Indian Super League (ISL) will be a repeat of the 2014 season. Atletico de Kolkata take on Kerala Blasters in the final and if the league stages are any indication – these two teams were never front-runners for the finale and yet here they are.
If anything has come out of the semi finals, it is the sheer determination with which Kerala strut their stuff. They tend to play to their strengths, which is a solid defence and a pacy counter attack. In the second leg of the semi final against Delhi Dynamos, they made the most of a chaotic 10-minute period and the ensuing man advantage.
Where, ATK looked the stronger side against Mumbai City FC in their semi-final fixture, same can’t be said about Kerala Blasters.
In the second semi-final, the first leg provided Kerala with a slender lead of 1-0. But in the reverse fixture, Delhi outplayed Kerala in attack and in defence, despite being a man down. Kerala got away with it because of the efforts their of defenders, predominantly Aaron Hughes, Sandesh Jhinghan and Cedric Hengbart.
The amount of work that they had to do was exemplified by Hughes, the workhorse that he is, asking to be substituted towards the end of the extra time period. In the end, they managed to keep a cool head in the penalty shootouts, something that their opponents couldn’t manage.
Atletico de Kolkata and Kerala Blasters are similar in more ways than one. Both have shown that they can defend and wrestle out a clean sheet if they have to and both have shown that they can cause major problems to the opposition on the counter.
Kerala Blasters had difficulty in creating chances, let alone scoring goals, in the earlier parts of the season. They seem to have overcome that little obstacle since the inclusion of CK Vineeth and the rise of Kervens Belfort.
Judging by the way the two teams have played in the semi-finals, Atletico de Kolkata certainly seem to have a chance of lifting the trophy for the second time.
But if ISL 2016 has taught us anything, it is that predicting the result of any match before its end is futile. The teams that looked like the candidates to fight for the trophy in the final have been knocked out in the semi-finals. Last season’s finalists had finished at the bottom of the table. Perpetual under-performers Mumbai City FC managed to finish top of the table while Kerala Blasters’ lacklustre 2015 is followed by a chance to have a crack at the title.
Come Sunday and the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in Kochi will be thronging with yellow shirts screaming at the top of their voices. Whether their cheers will be answered by Kerala’s maiden ISL title or their collective hearts will be broken by the team in red and white will be known only after the 90 minutes and whatever is required later.