For fans of the beautiful game tuning in to watch the final of the 2016 Indian Super League on Sunday evening, chances are that the affair is going to be more grind than gorgeous. With two finalists who’ve eschewed pragmatism in spades right through the tournament, the spectacle might be decided by who takes the initiative first to try and get their hands on the coveted trophy.
Atletico de Kolkata, the most consistent side in the ISL, find themselves in their second final with a chance to become double champions, an achievement that would buff up their reputation no end and increase their standing further, especially since they hail from a region where they share footballing real estate with Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. They are a very organised team, from under Antonio Habas then to Jose Molina now and have some very experienced individuals, both Indian and foreign, who excel in game management.
A stubborn defence helped them maintain their advantage earned from the first leg at home after Robert Lalthumuana’s sending off saw them play the majority of the second leg at Mumbai City with 10 men. Mumbai did have their chances though and with some better composure while finishing, could have gotten more out of that game.
At the beginning of the season, Kerala Blasters were a side struggling to score. Michael Chopra featuring prominently early on and had a definite say in their form in front of goal – the Blasters were less Rocky Balboa and more the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The Blasters haven't got significantly better at it as the tournament has progressed, doing just enough on that end to get by. What they've had from the beginning though is a very good backline that has been effective in shutting out opponents, negating the need for them to score many goals.
Sandesh Jhingan, Cedric Hengbart, Aaron Hughes and Josu Prieto have been a defensive shield that teams haven't had much luck in getting the better of. The tireless contribution of Mehtab Hossain in defensive midfield must not be overlooked in this regard. Against a very good attacking side like the Delhi Dynamos in the semi-finals, they needed it all the more. The Blasters were also quite fortuitous in the second leg, as Delhi, despite being reduced to 10 men, were the better side for the 120 minutes that the two sides were on the pitch before a disastrous penalty shootout saw them sent packing.
Delhi were mighty profligate with the chances they got, some very good ones at that. They really would be kicking themselves at not being in the finals. Kerala did their best to help them out, applying no pressure on the Dynamos’ players, allowing them plenty of time and space on the ball. Kerala's forwards, looking to catch Delhi on the counter displayed the kind of teamwork a ragtag group of footballers put together 15 minutes before the game would exhibit.
Kerala have conceded only 12 goals the whole campaign, the least amongst all teams, even with the two extra games they've played. They will in all likelihood finish the season as the team with the least goals conceded. Club that with the fact that their keepers have been forced into just 31 saves, again the least amongst all teams. ATK aren't too bad themselves; third best defensive record with just 15 goals conceded and 36 saves made by the keeper.
The above stat line underlines how well the two teams’ back four have protected their goal. Together with the keeper and the holding midfielder, they've stayed compact and stifled teams. Mehtab for Kerala and Borja for Kolkata have been instrumental in this cause for their respective teams.
Borja is one of ATK’s most important players; nothing flashy about him, no lung-busting runs, but he's a brilliant organiser on the field and their captain. He also manages to make a nuisance of himself to the opposition's ball carrier and just keeps running from minute one to ninety. Mehtab for Kerala has been similarly impressive as he helps break up the play a lot, allowing his defence time to get organised.
A cagey affair in the final
It says a lot that we've spoken about both of the teams so much and not mentioned their forward players too much. Kerala will be thanking themselves that CK Vineeth returned when he did and brought with him a goalscoring purple patch. Iain Hume for ATK is the leading scorer and after a slow start, picked up the pace and has 8 goals now. Molina has used him smartly opting to alternate between the trio of Juan Belencoso, Hume and Helder Postiga depending on the opposition.
But yes, as has been evidenced, these two teams are really about not losing the game first and foremost rather than going out and winning it. The stakes are also high. It's Kerala's second crack at the title against the same opponents who denied them the first time. Plus, playing in front of their home fans, there's obviously the possible delirium of success as well as the stinging pain of defeat.
ATK will look to not concede early, take the raucous home crowd out of the equation and know that the pressure is on Kerala.
For all that and more, Sunday's grand finale looks to be a contest likely decided by the narrowest of margins with both teams giving away so little. A 1-0 scoreline like their encounter from two years ago could well be in the offing.Published 18 Dec 2016, 14:24 IST