In the first two seasons of the Indian Super League, the opening fixtures produced high-scoring results. Atletico de Kolkata registered identical 3-2 wins over Chennaiyin FC in the opening games of both the seasons.

This season started less auspiciously especially for the Kerala Blasters as they travelled to the Sarusajai Stadium for the opener against NorthEast United. It is never easy playing in Guwahati and with a 28,000-plus crowd supporting the home team in sweltering temperatures exceeding 32 degrees Celsius, it was always going to be tough for the Blasters and their newly-appointed coach, Steve Coppell.

As Katsumi Yusa’s goal sank the visitors, the travelling Manjapadda (Blasters fans) would have been disappointed not just at the goal and the defeat, but the abject manner in which the team capitulated, not managing a single shot on target.

Defying all expectations

Initial predictions were grim, and as they sank to a second successive 1-0 loss without a single shot on target once again, this time to Atletico de Kolkata in front of a packed home crowd in Kochi, the knives were being sharpened as Coppell and Co were criticised for not signing a recognised full back (Rino Anto was away on Bengaluru FC duty at the time) as creative midfielder Josu and centre-back Pratik Chowdhary played on the left and right of the defence respectively.

Coppell had himself acknowledged the point about the absence of balance in the side. It finally took them 58 minutes in the next game to register their first shot on target, as the game against Delhi at home ended in a draw.

With a run of away games to follow after their next home game against Mumbai, the situation could have been grim for the Blasters. However, Coppell and his team showed their tactical nous as the Blasters gained five points from those four away fixtures to come away relatively unscathed. At this point, the Blasters had an advantage as only two of their remaining six games at the business end of the season would be away from home.

Cometh the hour, cometh Vineeth

Prior to the season, the Blasters had re-signed last season’s top scorer, Antonio German. Along with the Haitians Kervens Belfort and Duckens Nazon, ex-Newcastle man Michael Chopra and the two Mohammeds, Rafi and Rafique, the Blasters had a forward line to contend with but there was a feeling that something was missing as too much of the build-up play was direct and through the middle.

CK Vineeth and Rino Anto, both local boys not available for the first eight games due to Bengaluru FC’s run to the 2016 AFC Cup final, were finally available for selection as the Blasters faced Goa at home.

With the game tied at 1-1, Vineeth came off the bench to score the winner speaking scenes of delirium among the home crowd. That was just the tip of the iceberg, as the 29-year old from Kannur would end up with five goals for his team, and is the only Indian in the top 20 rated players for this ISL season, with an average of 7.74 from his eight games.

With the reliable Rino at right-back, Kerala have made the final on the back of five wins from the last eight games, a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Mumbai City away the only major blip on a perfect second half of the season.

A team of hard-working individuals

In the ISL’s short history, Aaron Hughes is an anomaly, the only marquee player ever to be still playing international football while playing for his franchise. The 36-year old appeared for Northern Ireland at the Euros and the Kerala captain’s fitness is a testament to the type of players that Coppell possesses at his disposal.

The 42-year old Sandip Nandy is still going strong at his age and was impressive as he saved two penalties as the Delhi Dynamos came up short in their penalty shootout battle against the evergreen custodian.

Sandesh Jhingan, the 2014 ISL emerging player of the year and Cedric Hengbart, who has arguably been the league’s second best defender only behind Mumbai’s Lucian Goian, have been twin rocks at the back. Ahead of them, former Espanyol man Azrack Mahamat and veteran Mehtab Hossain, who marked Florent Malouda out of the second leg of the semifinal in Delhi, have been doing the dirty work, breaking up play and putting in crucial tackles.

With the team struggling for goals and attacking impetus early on, Vineeth’s workrate and tireless running has not only brought goals, but his movement off the ball has also allowed the other attackers, Belfort and Nazon to come alive in and around the penalty box.

Come Sunday, it will be a cracker of a contest and a repeat of the first ISL final, where Atletico snatched it at the last minute to leave Keralite hearts broken. Atletico, who have looked patchy throughout the competition, will do well to take note of this team’s progression through adversity as the Blasters seek to fulfill a long cherished team in front of a raucous home crowd and get their hands on the trophy in a season of steep ups-and-downs.