After ten weeks of gruelling fixtures, the third season of Indian Super League has finally gone down to the wire, with Atletico de Kolkata and Kerala Blasters locking horns in the final at Kochi on Sunday evening.
It will be a clash between two of India’s biggest football powerhouses, given West Bengal and Kerala both find themselves among the three most successful participants in the 74-year history of India’s inter-state football competition – the Santosh Trophy.
The forthcoming meeting will surely evoke the memories of the summit clash in the inaugural edition of the glitzy league when the two teams had met in Mumbai where the franchise from the ‘City of Joy’ had earned the bragging rights.
A repeat of 2014?
The set-up is not completely similar this year as a number of professionals have swapped sides since then. Mohammed Rafique, who had scored the solitary goal that night after coming on as a substitute, now plays for the Blasters joining his former team-mate Mohammed Rafi.
Iain Hume and Stephen Pearson, who were vital cogs in that Blasters squad, will be taking the field for Atletico this time around. However, a number of footballers, including Ishfaq Ahmed, Mehtab Hossain, Sandesh Jhingan, Sandip Nandy of Kerala and Borja Fernandez, Kinshuk Debnath of Atletico will be donning the same colours this time as well.
While it will be unfair to say that these two teams didn’t deserve a place in the final, it’s also worth mentioning that they rarely looked like outliers amongst the eight participating outfits. Both the franchises didn’t have many match-winners and rarely relied on their bench strength to scrape through.
Will Hume be the key to ATK?
Kolkata won only four of their fourteen matches in the group stage and the Kochi-based franchise had to recover from a horrible start and could only win one of their nine away fixtures.
However, both of them has relied heavily on their grit and the ability of the two coaches’ to work with limited resources is one of the main reasons they have come this far. The 90-minute affair this weekend will not have any clear-cut favourites but a few players will be vital for the team’s fortunes.
A lot will depend on Hume, who continues to be the principal attacking threat for Kolkata despite the presence of Portuguese striker Helder Postiga. The real contest will be fought between the away team’s frontline and the hosts’ defense.
For the Sachin Tendulkar co-owned franchise, Aaron Hughes, Sandesh Jhingan and Cedric Hengbart have been exceptional at the back, growing in confidence as the league wore on. The away side will miss India international Arnab Mondal at the central defense while the hosts will have to shuffle their cards as Barcelona youth product Josu Currais is suspended for the tie.
Kerala’s Haitian combination
For Steve Coppell’s unit, the Haitian duo of Duckens Nazon and Kervens Belfort will bear the primary responsibility of scoring and former India international Rafi will also be thrown into the mix if he can regain full fitness.
In the midfield, Borja Fernandes will be pulling the strings for Molina’s team but will be challenged by the duo of Mehtab and Mahamat Azrack. It can also be a fascinating contest between two Bengali goalkeepers – the 42-year old Sandip Nandy and the 25-year old Debjit Majumder who are expected to stand between the sticks for the finalists.
Nandy has been the guide for Majumder over the years, pointing out his mistakes after every match, but the rapport will be kept aside when they take the field on Sunday. Atletico and Blasters have, however, received very different receptions from the cities they represent.
The Sourav Ganguly co-owned outfit have failed to draw a capacity crowd at the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium which holds less than 12,000 people. At the same time, the attendance in Kochi has been one of the biggest positives of the competition, consistently drawing more than 50,000 people to the venue.
This has much to do with the kind of perception the local fans have about them. While Atletico has been at the receiving end of the ire of fans of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan – the clubs whose existence at the top flight can be challenged by the Red and Whites following the proposed revamp – the Blasters are now the only team from the football crazy state of Kerala to compete at the national stage and hence enjoy an unconditional support.
On Sunday evening, the Yellow Brigade will once be flocking at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, with the game already being sold out. The home advantage has been the most talked-about weapon in their arsenal and the fact that Coppell’s team have won all of their last six matches in front of their own fans is the biggest testament to that.
On the other hand, Kolkata have lost only one of their nine away encounters in 2016 and are the only team who have defeated the Blasters at Kochi. With the game evenly poised, it will not be surprising if the game goes to extra time and in that case the travellers would have the upper hand with the extra day’s rest that they have enjoyed. With the stakes running high and the ambience inimitable, a mouth-watering clash is in the offing.
Atanu Mitra has been covering Indian football for more than four years. He tweets @Atanu00.