Things were going swimmingly till CK Vineeth punctured the notion with the same clinical efficiency that he has scored for Kerala Blasters this term. “It is the hard work that teams put in that gets them to the final, not the passion of fans,” he said.
Till then it had seemed appropriate that Kolkata and Kerala, two places where Bill Shankly’s statement of football being more important than life and death would find many agreeing with the legendary Liverpool coach, have both reached their second final in three seasons of the Indian Super League (ISL). On Sunday, the Nehru stadium in Kochi would be a buzzing, throbbing cauldron that no ISL venue has come close to matching. One that would compare with Kolkata’s Salt Lake stadium before its seating capacity was reduced to around 65,000.
But then again fans don’t play, as Kerala Blasters coach Steve Coppell pointed out. Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) and Kerala Blasters have some similarities in getting to the ISL 2016 final, down to both having a left-back suspended in Robert Lalthlamuana and Josu Currais for the hosts. Both have effective wide midfielders and have kept the faith in key players, ATK retaining seven of the 11 foreigners and Blasters doing that with Indians. That at 1360 minutes, Blasters’ central midfielder Mehtab Hossain has played 18 minutes more than ATK skipper Borja Fernandez this season tells its own story. Don’t be surprised if Hossain shadows Helder Postiga to the showers on Sunday.
If ATK have retained nine players from last season, Blasters have done that with six. Sandip Nandy, Sandesh Jhingan and Mehtab Hossain have been with the Blasters since 2014. Vineeth, Antonio German and Mohammed Rafi have worn yellow since ISL 2. And Michael Chopra and Cedric Hengbart are back after playing for Blasters in 2014.
At around 28 (it’s 28.88 for ATK and 28.24 for Blasters), the teams have nearly the same average age though Blasters’ goalie Nandy, 41, has been around since the late Amal Dutta got Mohun Bagan to play in a diamond formation in 1997. Nandy is a childhood hero for ATK shot-stopper Debjit Majumder, 28.
But ATK have lost only twice in this year’s competition, Blasters five times. And by resting nine players in the second-leg of the semi-final, coach Jose Molina has shown the kind of depth his roster has. Also, ATK has Iain Hume, 33, whose energy and savvy in the front third has led to a number of goals. The ISL’s top scorer with 23 goals, Hume hasn’t scored against Blasters, his former club, and it will take all the experience of central defenders Aaron Hughes and Hengbart to keep it that way on Sunday.