The Indian football fraternity is buzzing with excitement ahead of the final of the eighth edition of the Indian Super League (ISL). And this time it’s a South Indian derby as first-time finalists Hyderabad FC (HFC) will take on two-time runners-up Kerala Blasters FC (KBFC) at Fatorda’s PJN Stadium on Sunday evening.
Indian football legend Shabbir Ali has picked Hyderabad FC as the favorites to win the title. Ali, arguably India’s best striker in the late 1970s and early '80s, told Sportskeeda:
“Hyderabad FC have played an exceptional brand of football this season. They don’t have many renowned Indian players, yet they have outplayed most of their opponents. Of course, I’m a bit biased towards this team as it belongs to my own city.”
Road to the final
Irrespective of whoever lifts the silverware on Sunday, the league will witness a new champion. Both Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters FC are well balanced, with their attackers and defenders putting in fine shifts throughout the season.
While Manolo Marquez’s Hyderabad finished second in the league phase with 38 points (11 wins, five draws and four losses), Ivan Vukomanovic’s Blasters finished in fourth spot with 34 points (nine wins, seven draws and four losses).
Interestingly, Jamshedpur FC, who won seven consecutive matches en route to their maiden League Winners’ Shield triumph, were pipped 1-2 on aggregate by Kerala over the two-legged semi-finals.
The Telugoons, meanwhile, beat last season’s runners-up ATK Mohun Bagan FC 3-2 on aggregate to book their maiden ISL final berth.
The two South Indian sides have defeated fancied opponents to reach the final, which testifies to the league’s increased competition this season.
Ali praised Hyderabad's defense for absorbing ATKMB’s relentless attacks in the semi-final second leg, despite losing it 0-1 on the night. He quipped:
“Mohun Bagan looked excellent in the match, but HFC’s defense did well to keep the lead intact. Many Mohun Bagan fans are complaining on social media that their team was deprived of a goal and that HFC managed the referees. I would say that some decisions went against HFC as well. Mohun Bagan have a strong frontline, but HFC soaked up the pressure effectively. Give credit where it’s due.”
"Laxmikant Kattimani deserves a national call-up" - Shabbir Ali
Hyderabad custodian Laxmikant Kattimani played like a man possessed in the semi-final second leg in Bambolim. Adjudged the Hero of the Match for his stupendous display, he made as many as six saves against a rampaging ATKMB attacking force comprising Roy Krishna, Liston Colaco, Hugo Boumous and Kiyan Nassiri.
Often criticized for his tendency to leak goals, Kattimani has achieved redemption this season by playing a key role in Hyderabad FC's march to the final. The 32-year-old Goan has conceded only 22 goals and pulled off the most saves (58), besides possessing the best minutes/goals conceded ratio (85.91) in the current ISL season.
However, he is placed fifth on the list for the Golden Glove contenders due to lesser clean sheets (3) than KBFC’s Prabhsukhan Gill (7), JFC’s TP Rehenesh (6), ATKMB’s Amrinder Singh (6) and Mumbai City FC’s Mohamad Nawaz (5).
The former FC Goa captain still harbors hopes of playing for India but doesn’t feature among the 38 probables named for the upcoming international friendlies against Bahrain and Belarus.
Ali, who managed Kattimani during his coaching stint at Goan outfit Vasco, has called for the latter’s selection in the national squad, saying:
“I’m very happy for Kattimani. Hats off to coach Manolo for showing faith in him. He still has a lot of top-level football left in him, so he certainly deserves a national call-up. He was called into the Indian squad as Subrata Paul’s understudy in 2011, but was later discarded. Please don’t ignore him on the basis of his past performances.”
Shabbir Ali on Souvik Chakrabarti, Sahal Abdul Samad, Liston Colaco and other young Indian stars
The best thing about the current edition of the ISL is that it has catapulted several Indian youngsters to fame. The likes of Liston Colaco, Sahal Abdul Samad, Ritwik Das, Aniket Jadhav, Akash Mishra, Rohit Danu, Mohamad Yasir, Souvik Chakrabarti and Vikram Pratap Singh have become household names, which is a great sign for the league’s sustainability.
Take Chakrabarti for example. The versatile footballer, equally adept at playing as a right-back and a central midfielder, has been around on the Indian football circuit for a long time. However, he has come into his own this season, helping Hyderabad win two crucial league matches against Bengaluru FC and Mumbai City FC.
It was under Ali’s tutelage that Chakrabarti tasted Santosh Trophy glory with Bengal 12 years ago. Ali eulogized Chakrabarti and some of the other Indian youngsters who’ve made a mark this season, stating:
“Souvik has improved a lot over the years. Hyderabad have done a great job by promoting young talent like Akash, Aniket, Danu, Yasir, [Halicharan] Narzary and Nikhil [Poojary].”
The former East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting Club striker also spoke about Colaco’s evolution. Colaco has had a stellar maiden campaign with ATKMB, finishing the ISL campaign as their best performer. A contender for the Golden Ball award, the left-winger has registered 12 goal contributions this season and pushed his game to the next level. Ali praised Colaco, saying:
“When he joined Hyderabad two years back, he didn’t get enough chances. But he got his breakthrough last season and has now become one of the best left wingers in the country.”
What will winning the ISL title mean for Hyderabad?
The city's contribution to Indian football is etched in gold. A traditional sporting powerhouse, Hyderabad birthed a plethora of Olympians in the 1950s and '60s and dominated domestic football through the indomitable Hyderabad City Police team under Syed Abdul Rahim’s stewardship.
But the city’s prominence in Indian football began to taper off after Rahim saab’s death and fell into an indefinite slumber until it was resurrected by Hyderabad FC. With soaring ambitions and a view to reigniting the enthusiasm for the “Beautiful Game” in Hyderabad, the club was founded by Telengana businessman Vijay Madduri and former KBFC CEO Varun Tripuraneni after the erstwhile Pune City FC was disbanded three years ago.
Their initiation into the cash-rich league, though, was an absolute nightmare. The Nizams ended their debut ISL season at rock bottom, winning only a couple of their 18 matches.
Instead of sending shockwaves across the HFC hierarchy, the disastrous campaign made their resolve stronger. The turnaround started with Tripuraneni rebuilding the team from the January transfer window and making some key changes to the club’s top brass.
Accordingly, Sujay Sharma was appointed as the club's director of football towards the end of the 2019-20 season and they soon brought Albert Roca on board to replace Phil Brown as their head coach. A few months later, they entered into a strategic partnership with Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund.
Just as the stage seemed set for salvation, the HFC management got a rude shock with Roca’s departure to FC Barcelona. With little time left on their hands to name the Spaniard's replacement, they selected his compatriot Manolo Marquez as the club’s new head coach in August 2020. It has been a blessing in disguise!
Marquez has not only enraptured the fans with his possession-based play but has also shown ample trust in some of the hitherto unknown Indian players. Although they narrowly missed out on a playoff berth last season, quite a few Hyderabad FC players made the cut for the senior national team and have already established their credentials at the international level.
This season, the Nizams have looked more lethal with reinforcements like Bartholomew Ogbeche, Juanan, Javier Siverio and Jadhav bolstering an already formidable unit. While the Ogbeche-led attack rules the scoring charts with 46 goals in 22 matches, Hyderabad's defense has yielded 25 goals, the second-lowest tally this season after that of JFC (23).
Ogbeche, in fact, sealed his Golden Boot award a long time back and currently has a staggering 18 goals to his name this season – seven more than second-placed Greg Stewart.
Ali credited Hyderabad FC for reviving the city’s football legacy. The Dhyan Chand award-winning coach said:
“The people of Hyderabad are grateful to HFC for reviving our passion for football. Another Hyderabadi team, Sreenidi Deccan FC, will also gradually take off. HFC have the potential to match the feats of the legendary Hyderabad City Police side. Everyone is very excited about the final. You need to give HFC credit for what they’ve achieved in just three years. Varun, Sujay and the others deserve plaudits as well.”
Ali, who runs his own academy in Hyderabad, also thanked Marquez for promoting young Indian footballers, saying:
“A few years ago, I praised Zico for promoting young players like Mandar Rao Desai and Romeo Fernandes at FC Goa. I would say that Manolo has a similar philosophy. Another good thing about him is that he never complains. Even after Narzary and Yasir suffered injuries, he never complained about it. That’s the hallmark of being a good manager.”
The Nizams are on the cusp of something special. It now remains to be seen if they win the bragging rights on Sunday and herald a new epoch in the city’s rich football history. If they do, HFC’s hashtag will be the perfect embodiment of the euphoria - #ThisIsOurGame.
HFC vs KBFC head-to-head record in the ISL
6 matches: HFC 3 wins, KBFC 3 wins
KBFC 1 (Vazquez 42') - 0 HFC - 9th January 2022, Tilak Maidan
HFC 2 (Ogbeche 28', Siverio 87') - 1 KBFC (Barretto 90+5') - 23rd February 2022, Bambolim
Q. Which ISL 2021-22 finalist have a better foreign contingent?
Kerala Blasters FC