It has been another joyride for the fans of the Kerala Blasters as their team made it through to their second ISL final. What makes it all the more special this time around is that the final will be at home. The Blasters have enjoyed nothing short of fanatical, partisan support at Kochi. 50,000-plus fans have thronged the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium for every game and created unbelievable surroundings for Steve Coppell’s team to play in.
But at the start of the season, it didn’t look so rosy for Kerala. They had only one point from their first three games – they had lost to NorthEast United and Atletico de Kolkata via deflected goals. They came back home and picked up a point from a 0-0 draw against Delhi Dynamos, in a start to a five-match unbeaten run that saw them pick up nine points with two wins and two draws.
Kerala picked up one-goal wins against Mumbai City FC and FC Goa with a 1-1 draw with Pune City FC sandwiched in between. A 0-0 draw in Chennai saw Kerala make their way into the top four.
After that, there seemingly was no looking back, but the men in yellow stumbled as Delhi Dynamos gave them a footballing lesson in a 2-0 victory, thanks to goals from Marcelinho and Kean Lewis. However, that proved to be just the wake-up call that the Blasters needed.
It was a challenge for the manager to find goalscorers. Kerala had scored only four goals in their first seven games with their high-profile signing, Michael Chopra struggling.
He was not getting into the positions that a centre-forward should and getting bullied by opposition defenders. And it seemed like the pressure was getting the better of him whenever he stepped on the pitch. The problem for Chopra was that his composure had gone missing. Even on the rare occasions that he did find himself in front of goal, he fluffed his lines miserably.
‘Rocky’ hasn’t started a game since. Antonio German has has fallen out of favour as well, with Haitians Kervens Belfort and Duckens Nazon preferred to the two Englishmen.
Kerala have lost only one game from then on, a 5-0 hammering in Mumbai against the league leaders. But Steve Coppell seemed to have found a formula.
What changed it for Coppell was that he seemed to have found a formula, he seemed to have found a set of players who started every game – a set of players who could win Kerala matches.
It was a challenge for the manager to find goalscorers. Kerala had scored only four goals in their first seven games. They have scored 11 goals in their nine games since. But in those nine games, Kerala only conceded five goals.
Their marquee player, their captain Aaron Hughes showed why he was so sought after by the Blasters. The Northern Ireland international along with Cedric Hengbart have combined at the heart of Kerala’s defence to be as miserly as they could, and they have succeeded.
Inspired by one of their own
Kerala’s run towards the home stretch well and truly began, though, with the arrival of one of their own. One of Kerala’s most loved. The boy from Kannur – CK Vineeth. The striker was away on another memorable campaign – Bengaluru FC’s run into the AFC Cup final, where he was one of Albert Roca’s most trusted weapons.
On the back of his goal, Vineeth won Kerala ten points. On his season debut, Vineeth was on hand to score an injury-time winner in a crazy win over Goa to start off his ISL. He then went on to score a brace as Kerala put their southern rivals Chennaiyin FC to the sword with a 3-1 win at the fortress. That was followed by the opener in a 1-1 draw at Kolkata.
But arguably Vineeth’s most important contribution for Coppell came in their last league game against NorthEast United. It was a game that Kerala had to get a result from in order to qualify for the semifinal.
But things weren’t quite going to plan. NorthEast were dominating the game and creating chances to score, only to miss them. But the atmosphere was getting tense inside the Kochi fortress. That is when Vineeth stepped up to send Kochi into delirium and the Blasters into the semifinal.
His impact has been massive, but so too the other Indian players in the Kerala team. Their impact may not be statistically accounted for like Vineeth’s is, but they have more than played their part. Sandesh Jhingan and Mehtab Hossain have been rock-solid. Jhingan especially needed a good season after his horror showing last year, when Kerala finished last.
But he has well and truly risen to the occasion, and in an unnatural position. The presence of Hughes and Hengbart has meant that Jhingan has had to play a right-back but he has coped with the challenge admirably. Offensively, he hasn’t offered much of a threat, but no winger playing against him has found any happiness on the pitch.
Mehtab, on the other hand, has been the perfect foil for Azrack Mahamat. The veteran Indian has just sat in front of the back four, played the simple passes, broken down opposition attacks and to Coppell’s delight, has delivered some telling crosses from set-pieces.
And it is not just these Indian players who have done well. In their own way, Mohamad Rafi, Mohammad Rafique, Pratik Chowdhary and Rino Anto have all stepped up when the manager has wanted them to.
The biggest day of their lives
So when Kerala step out on the pitch on Sunday evening, they will be brimming with confidence. The fans will make all the noise they can to make it the worst 90 minutes that Atletico de Kolkata can have. Coppell will have plans to snuff out Kolkata’s biggest threats.
But most importantly, Kerala Blasters will have the wherewithal on the pitch to send their fans home happy and for themselves to go home with the ISL trophy having been pouched.Published 16 Dec 2016, 19:01 IST