At a virtual press conference before the playoffs, Prashanth Kumar Rai reiterated a point he had made months earlier, before season eight of the Pro Kabaddi. His message was simple, that the Patna Pirates will win the title.

The first time he mentioned it, it seemed more like the casual confidence of a captain ready to bask in the friendly banter he and his colleagues in the PKL had not enjoyed for two years – let’s not forget, there was no kabaddi in 2020 due to the pandemic. This time when he mentioned Patna’s goal though, there was no mistaking the menace in the message.

After 23 matches played this season, the Pirates have established themselves as the team to beat.

They raced up the ladder during the group stage and became the first team to qualify for the playoffs, eventually finishing in top spot. And then they toyed with a UP Yoddha outfit led by Patna’s former darling, a certain Pardeep Narwal, to make it to the final.

The Pirates are still overwhelming favourites, but in the summit clash they take on Dabang Delhi, the only team to have beaten the Patna twice this season and make it to the playoffs.

Dabang Delhi finished second in the league standings to make it to the semi-finals. There they beat Pawan Sehrawat’s Bengaluru Bulls to make it to the PKL final for the second season in a row.

The Pirates are looking for their fourth title while Delhi hunts for their first. The best two teams of the season are in the final, Patna may be the favourite, but Delhi has been the most consistent over the past two seasons.

Here’s how the two teams matchup for the final.

Naveen Kumar’s fitness

The 21-year-old’s favourite thing to do when not playing kabaddi is enjoy a siesta under the jamun tree back home, in the Bhaini Kungar village in the Bhawani district of Haryana. It’s a slow, peaceful life, but when he’s on the mat, he’s no slouch. Aptly nicknamed The Naveen Express, the talented raider is always on the prowl for touch points.

He has the speed to push forward, and the strength and awareness to breakthrough opposition tackles.

Starting in the 2019 season and flowing into this year, Naveen picked up a record 28 consecutive Super10s. Defenders couldn’t stop him, what did however, was an untimely knee injury that forced him out for a good chunk of the season.

But he did return.

Against the Bulls in the semi-final, he picked up 14 crucial points to help his team to a 40-35 win. And that was while he continued to hobble and grimace in pain. Naveen is clearly not back to full fitness, but he’s proven that he’s still willing to put everything on the line to win the title.

In the 16 matches he’s played this term, he’s scored 194 points.

Delhi’s veterans step up

The Dabang Delhi outfit was thought to be a one-man army, and their season threatened to derail when Naveen was ruled out through injury. But that’s when the veteran stars of the team stepped up.

Captain Joginder Narwal has played 100 PKL matches, Manjeet Chhillar has played 131, Jeeva Kumar has played 135, and the mercurial Sandeep Narwal has 148 caps. On the bench, there’s even the former India captain and Padma Shri Ajay Thakur with 120 PKL matches under the belt.

They all started to chip in with points to keep Delhi in the hunt for playoff spots. It didn’t have to be big wins, just as long as they won. In fact, eight of Delhi’s 13 wins this season have been by five points or less – including the semi-final against the Bulls.

Along with the experienced defenders though, Vijay stepped up to fill the Naveen shaped void in attack – notching 144 points in 22 matches.

Ruthless Pirates

Unlike Delhi, the Pirates went big in their wins. In fact, they finished the group stage with a stunning positive 120-point difference at the end of 22 matches – that included 16 wins, one draw and five losses. In their 23rd match, they beat UP Yoddha 38-27 in the semi-final.

And this from a team that, at the start of the season, at least on paper, had no such bonafide superstar in the raiding department at least. This is the first term since the emergence of Pardeep Narwal that the Pirates have been without the star raider.

Pardeep and Patna went different ways when he decided to enter the auction rather than be retained, fetching a record Rs 1.65 crore salary. In place of Pardeep, Patna sought the services of a list of talented players, but none with as high a profile as Pardeep.

And that combination worked as everyone has chipped in with points.

Raiders Sachin Tanwar, Rai and Guman Singh have contributed with 163, 93 and 86 points respectively. But the main strength of the Pirates outfit has been a keen defence.

The defensive-line has been in sync, and almost no tackle goes without support. It’s a fearless and effective strategy that has likened the team to the fabled title-winning U Mumba outfit from Season 2 (which lost just two matches overall).

The Shadloui factor

In the left corner of defence, the Pirates field the most expensive foreign buy of the season – Rs 31 lakhs. That value for Mohammadreza Shadloui Chiyaneh surely would have gone up by now.

The 21-year-old from Iran has been the most ruthless of all defenders this season. He’s notched up a season-high 87 points from his daring, powerful and unforgiving tackles. If he’s not initiating tackles he’s charging in to support.

In Season 3, the Pirates had given a free-reign to another left-corner Iranian, Fazel Atrachali, who went on to lead his country to an Asian Games gold in 2018. Now they’ve brought Shadloui to the PKL.

On Friday, the tussle between Shadloui and Naveen is expected to be the most gripping duel of the season, in a match between the best teams of Season 8.

The final starts at 20:30 Hrs, live on Star Sports Network and Disney+ Hotstar