After the 12-week marathon league phase, Pro Kabaddi enters its knockout stages on Monday beginning with the eliminators that see third-placed UP Yoddha take on sixth-ranked Bengaluru Bulls while U Mumba lock horns with Haryana Steelers for the two remaining semi-final berths at TransStadia’s EKA arena in Ahmedabad.
Dabang Delhi and Bengal Warriors secured a direct entry into the semi-finals after finishing in the top two positions on the league table and will await the winners of the two eliminators in the last-four clashes on Thursday.
The eliminators are replays of two of the last three matches of the Greater Noida leg, the final one in the 12-led league phase. Thus the proximity of those games to the eliminators are set to have a bearing on the mindset of the teams on Monday.
UP Yoddha and U Mumba won those matches against their respective opponents on Monday, but the manner of the defeat was perhaps more damaging for the morale of the losers.
Steelers went down in a close battle with U Mumba, but their star raider Vikas Khandola seemed out of sorts against the U Mumba defence, scoring only six raid points.
Khandola’s performances have been critical for the Steelers with the young raider from Haryana often being the difference between success and defeat.
The Steelers had won just one of their opening three games before Khandola returned to fitness and propelled the team to win ten out of their next thirteen games. It included a win over U Mumba where Khandola had scored nine points but suffered three fewer tackles lesser compared to the encounter last Thursday.
As for Bengaluru Bulls, the defeat to UP Yoddha in the final game of the league stage was much heavier and left them with plenty of questions to answer.
Their star man Pawan Sehrawat, who is the league’s top-scoring raider this season, was tackled seven times in the game. Although he scored 13 points in the game, the tally was a point below his season’s average of 14 points per game.
His successful raid percentage in the game also dropped to 50 per cent from his season tally of 74.03 per cent. The Bulls thus would need to find a way of scoring points against the UP Yoddha defence that has grown in prominence as the season has progressed.
The Bulls had also lost their first game against their eliminators opponents where Sehrawat despite scoring 15 points in the game was dismissed on five occasions. So, there is quite a bit of psychological baggage that the Bulls’ star man needs to overcome to help his team preserve their title defence.
UP Yoddha and U Mumba are the form teams coming into the playoffs. The UP side have won five out of their last six matches, while U Mumba have won four, lost one and tied one in their previous six matches.
The Steelers have won three and lost three in their previous six matches, while the Bulls have won just two games coming into the playoffs.
U Mumba and UP Yoddha have had a model for success based on defensive stability. The two sides have showcased a high degree of cohesiveness in their defence, helping their relatively inexperienced raiders excel with the pressure on them reduced.
The Bulls’ defence has been inconsistent all along but their shortcomings have been less exposed thanks to the brilliance of Sehrawat. The Steelers, on the other hand, displayed great defensive co-ordination in their winning run in mid-season, when Khandola was going great guns at the other end. However, they seemed to have gone off the boil at the just worst moment in their campaign. Whether coach Rakesh Kumar is able to instil his big-game mentality in his squad remains to be seen.
U Mumba vs Haryana Steelers: Vikas Khandola vs Surender
Khandola is not your traditional raider. He is sprightly and full of movement. He isn’t blessed with great reach because of his short stature but a low centre of gravity makes him a very dangerous raider. Although a lot will be said about him going head to head with Fazel Atrachali, U Mumba’s captain, the battle that could decide this encounter will be against U Mumba’s cover defender Surender.
The Himachal Pradesh defender is a strong but is known to have a few erratic moments in him. His self-control will be tested to the fullest by Khandola who is likely to attack him with quick turns and bursts of pace. If Surender can hold his head he will make it a lot harder for Khandola to score points.
UP Yoddha vs Bengaluru Bulls: Pawan Sehrawat vs Nitesh Kumar
Keep Sehrawat down and you will have Bulls struggling. UP Yoddha know it all too well. Their covers performed extremely well against Sehrawat in the last game, but they have also been highly inconsistent this season. So the onus to keep Pawan down will have to be shared a bit by Nitesh Kumar. Sehrawat likes to attack the opposite cover and corners and this where Nitesh could be crucial.
The Haryana defender has a fine double-thigh hold which if executed well could cause problems for Sehrawat when charging towards the right corner position. Nitesh has had Sehrawat’s number tackling him on 13 occasions in his Pro Kabaddi career while Sehrawat has only dismissed him six times.
Thus, purely on current form, previous clashes and overall makeup of the teams UP Yoddha and U Mumba appear favourites in the eliminators, but as history has it, all these elements often take a back seat when the knockouts begin.