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Friday, July 01, 2022

An India’s-got-talent ISL final

Both Kerala Blasters and Hyderabad FC have fielded home-grown youngsters regularly.

Written by Shashank Nair | New Delhi |
Updated: March 20, 2022 6:02:17 pm
It will be Hyderabad's maiden final appearance while Kerala Blasters will be competing in the final for the third time. (Twitter/Indian Super League)

An Indian Super League (ISL) season that has been punctuated routinely with Covid cases among various teams and its personnel, is finally coming to a close with a bittersweet ending. A horde of yellow is set to invade the tiny state of Goa as fans will be able to watch an ISL football game from the stands for the first time in two years. And it’s set to be a game worthy of the moment as Kerala Blasters make a return to the ISL Finals for the first time since 2016 and will face Hyderabad team making its own well-deserved debut at the stage.

What lies in store is an unexpected clash between two teams that not many would have expected to be at this stage of the competition.

Judging by the sheer talent on display of ATK Mohun Bagan, the financial backing of Mumbai City FC and the pass-until-you-pass out football that FC Goa bring to the table, it was unlikely that these would be the two teams at the final.

And yet this season, other than Covid, has been defined by Indian players – and in particular, young, up and coming Indian players. Combined, both squads boast of a total of 13 Indians who have been a part of the Indian Arrows, an All-India Football Federation developmental squad that operates in the I-League.
Take the case of Hyderabad FC. Last year director of football Sujay Sharma had told this paper that the first order of business the club had was to pick out and develop the best talent available to the Indian Arrows. The result, Akash Mishra, Hyderabad’s left-back, is an automatic starter for his team and has been one of Indian football’s best finds in the last two years.

On the other side of the isle, Kerala Blasters’ goalkeeper Prabhsukhan Gill had 30 appearances for the Indian Arrows post, which he has made the Kerala custodian spot his own this season with 42 saves in 19 games – all at the age of 21. The save tally though will increase on Sunday when he goes up against Bartholomew Ogbeche, who is having a once-in-a-lifetime run as striker of Hyderabad.

Ogbeche’s historic run

Known to be a proven goalscorer, Ogbeche started out his career at Paris Saint Germain and was part of a group that had Nicolas Anelka and Ronaldinho as his mentors. Now 37 and in India, Ogbeche netted 18 goals in 19 starts this season and has already become the leading ISL goalscorer in the competition’s brief history – a record he has thanks to stints at NorthEast United FC, Kerala Blasters, Mumbai City FC and now Hyderabad.

For all of Hyderabad’s excellent play down both flanks throughout this campaign, the finishing touch at the top has been the difference between a final appearance this year, and a missed playoff spot last year.

For Kerala, Adrian Luna has been their lifeblood, even though Álvaro Vázquez has looked the bigger threat in the team’s two meetings this season. With six goals and seven assists to his name, Luna offers the ability to provide for the rest of the Blasters’ team but also pop with an important goal when needed.

Egalitarian goalscoring

In fact, Luna is part of Kerala’s biggest strength going into this match – their various goalscorers. Jorge Diaz and Vazquez both have eight goals to their names while Luna and Sahal Adbul Samad have added six apiece this season.

While both Samad and Luna are doubtful to start the games, Kerala coach Ivan Vukomanovic said that both were being assessed by the medical team and seemed confident of their involvement in the match.

Both teams have landed blows on each other during the season. In their first meeting of the year, Kerala won and stopped a nine-game Hyderabad unbeaten run and took the lead spot on the ISL table. In their second encounter of the season, Hyderabad were the aggressors, taking all three points and guaranteeing their first playoff spot in ISL history.

Hyderabad’s left flank, particularly the combination of Akash Mishra and Aniket Jadhav has been highly effective. This is in part because of both Mishra and Jadhav’s ability to cut into the field with the ball and then provide for Ogbeche.

Kerala though have found success through Luna’s incisive passing in the middle of the park coupled with multiple attacking options in the final third of the pitch. Hyderabad FC coach Manolo Marquez told the club website that both teams were working from parallel styles, ahead of the final.

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“They have a similar style to our players, have experienced foreigners and quality Indian players, and will not be an easy side to face.” He then added, “I think we play similar to Kerala Blasters in most games. The quality and characteristics are the same.”

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