For the third time in their history, Kerala Blasters are just a win away from becoming Indian Super League champions. The previous two times the team reached the final, they lost out to the then Atletico de Kolkata (now ATK Mohun Bagan).
On Sunday though, they will face a Hyderabad FC team that by no means is an easy side to beat.
For the second time in the post-pandemic world, the ISL season took place in a bio-secure bubble in Goa. There was a breach of that bubble as several players across clubs were infected by Covid-19, yet still the league managed to push on, and on March 20, the title will be decided by two teams with contrasting styles.
Hyderabad FC finished second in the league stage but had been, arguably, the most consistent team through the season as they managed to stay within the Top 4 throughout. The Manuel Marquez-coached team managed 11 wins, 5 draws and 4 losses from their 20 group matches, finishing five points behind League Shield winners Jamshedpur FC.
In the knockout stage though they came from behind in the first leg to beat ATKMB 3-1, and held on in the second leg – which they lost 1-0 – to go to the final after a 3-2 aggregate win.
True to their consistency, the Hyderabad side is a well-oiled machine in all sections of the field.
Martialled by experienced defender Juan Antonio Gonzalez Fernandez, or Juanan, the team conceded 23 goals during the league stage which was bettered only by Jamshedpur FC (21). In midfield, skipper Joao Victor has looked after proceedings while the ISL’s highest ever goalscorer – with 53 goals in 76 matches – Bartholomew Ogbeche has continued his devastating run of form. In fact, the Nigerian has scored 18 of Hyderabad FC’s 46 goals this season.
And then there are the talented Indian players who form the core group of the team. The likes of young defenders Akash Mishra and Asish Rai have been impressive, as have Aniket Jadhav and Nikhil Poojary in midfield.
The Kerala Blasters, in contrast, had an indifferent start to the season, before head coach Ivan Vukomanovic changed tactics that tightened the Blasters’ defence – the team had more clean sheets than any other side.
The attacking unit, however, has been marked by moments of individual brilliance from a talented frontline.
Adrian Luna, Jorge Diaz and Alvaro Vazquez have been lethal in front of goal for the Blasters throughout the season. There’s also the talented attacking midfield Sahal Abdul Samad, who recently even had the Indian national coach Igor Stimac dub the player among his ‘favourites’ to watch.
In fact, it was Sahal’s strike in the first leg of the semi-final that helped the Blasters take a 1-0 win into the second leg, which ended in a 1-1 draw (Luna scored in the 18th minute of the second match).
The Blasters just about made it to the semi-final stage, finishing the league in fourth place ahead of Mumbai City by just three points.
But with their powerful attacking line-up, the Blasters have a team made for the knockouts.
Both teams won a match each when they met earlier in the season – the Blasters winning the first meeting 1-0, and Hyderabad taking the second one 2-1.
The final will do more than settle bragging rights between the two for this season.