In the end, December 18, 2016, felt like a near-repeat of December 20, 2014. For Kerala Blasters fans, it certainly seemed so.
As Jewel Raja’s penalty went in, the groans from the 54,000-plus crowd inside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi were audible. They were justified, to an extent, as Atletico de Kolkata had snatched the Indian Super League title from them for the second time in the three years.
The crowd in Kochi had been fantastic till that point. Their team, which had struggled during the initial phase of the season, had reached the final on the back of six straight home wins, riding a wave of unbelievable support unlike anywhere else in the country.
For Kerala, a powerhouse of Indian football, the ISL-I League divide had not affected the overwhelming support for the Blasters, as unlike the other hotbeds of the game in the country – Goa, NorthEast and Bengal – the region’s last professional club to compete in the I-League had been Viva Kerala in the 2011-’12 season.
Not just a Sachin vs Dada final
The final, the second between Atletico de Kolkata and Kerala Blasters, had been predictably billed as a contest between Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, the two former Indian cricketers and also co-owners of the two franchises.
In the build-up to the final, it had been argued that neither team had exactly set the league stage on fire, but had done the bare minimum and shown teamwork and resilience to make the best of their limited resources in reaching the final.
The Indian Rojiblancos in particular had been underwhelming. ATK may have clinched the title, but had won only five of their 17 games in ISL 2016 in normal time, and had just squeaked through to the playoffs, finishing fourth in the league stage.
Kerala’s late surge had seen them finish third, a testament also to the coaching abilities of Steve Coppell, who had repeatedly stressed that there had been an imbalance in the squad. It proved true once again as Josu was suspended for the final, which left the squad without a left-back – a gap that veteran midfielder Ishfaq Ahmed had to fill.
A myriad of sub-plots
Ishfaq had received a lot of flak earlier in the season, as the winger from Srinagar doubled up as the assistant manager for his team and was stated to be responsible for picking Indian players for the ISL franchise.
On the evening, however, Ishfaq was solid, nullifying the threat of the pacy Sameehg Doutie, not allowing the South African to run circles around him, as had been expected when the line-ups had been announced.
Kerala’s marquee player Aaron Hughes, who had been solid throughout the tournament, had to go off injured with a knock, as Coppell brought on Momar N’Doye for the veteran defender.
Sandip Nandy, the hero of the semi-final shootout, had also been replaced by Graham Stack, and the ex-Arsenal custodian kept his coach’s faith by saving Iain Hume’s penalty in the shootout.
A bloodbath for Sereno
The defining image of the ISL 2016 final will always be Henrique Sereno, wrapped in bloody bandages, hobbling off in extra time. Sereno displayed admirable courage and stepped up to the occasion, first to equalise after Mohammed Rafi had put the home side ahead and afterwards to continue for an hour even after receiving a nasty gash on his head.
Incidentally, Rafi himself had to go off with a niggling head injury, but not before rising high to meet Mehtab Hossain’s pinpoint delivery from a corner, giving Debjit Majumder no chance. The Blasters had opened the scoring and it was the first time a goal had been netted in the opening 45 minutes of an ISL final.
Atletico would level it up soon, and with players on both sides dropping like flies, succumbing to cramps and exhaustion, the two teams were determined not to make a mistake, turning the second half into a midfield battle.
Heartbreak for Hengbart
One of the features about this ISL season has been unpredictability. Cedric Hengbart, the Blasters’ rock-at-the-back, was the biggest victim of this unpredictability in the final. Hengbart had been superb throughout the season, putting in tackles, winning aerial duels and keeping opposition attackers at bay. Nothing changed in the final, as the Frenchman dealt with Hume and Postiga with ease and even helped Ishfaq deal with Doutie.
As the match headed into extra time, it wasn’t very clear as to who would take the penalties for the Blasters. CK Vineeth, superb throughout the tournament, had been poor in the final and had failed to make an impact, but would have still been expected to take one of the five spot-kicks. He did not.
Substitute Antonio German converted Kerala’s first, but Atletico’s opening kick, entrusted to ex-Kerala man Hume – the Hume who had been top-scorer for his respective teams in all three seasons and ISL’s highest scorer ever, the ever dependable Canadian – was saved by Stack. Belfort stroked the next kick into the bottom corner. Suddenly, Kerala were 2-0 up and smelled blood.
Doutie, cool as ice, made no mistake with his penalty as ATK clawed the score back to 2-1. N’Doye, the substitute, skied his next penalty, before the mercurial midfielder Borja dispatched his kick to level things up at 2-2.
Rafique, ATK’s hero in the first ISL final, scored against his former club, sending the keeper the wrong way. Atletico’s squad depth showed as Javi Lara, brought on for Postiga, confidently scored the next one as both teams were one kick away from sudden death with the score tied at three-all.
Hengbart, Kerala’s driving force in their run to the final, thwacked it down the middle but Debjit somehow got his leg to it as Jewel Raja, with all the pressure of the world on his shoulders, stunned the crowd with the last penalty.
Atletico may not have been the eye-catching team, but Jose Molina had done just enough at all junctures to ensure safe progress. In the final, it was more of the same.