The Indian Super League (ISL) 2019-20 final was the first ISL match to be held behind closed doors at the Pandit Jawaharlal Stadium in Fatorda (Goa) amid fears of a coronavirus outbreak. A year later, the same stadium is set to open its gates for the fans after two years as Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters gear up to smear the stadium yellow on Sunday.
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Kerala Blasters will hope the third time's the charm after failing to lift the trophy in its two earlier appearances in the ISL summit clash. It comes into the match on a five-match unbeaten run and will look to wrap up what has been the club's most successful season this far. The last team KBFC lost in the league was against Hyderabad FC — its opponent in the final.
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Manolo Marquez’s men have risen from the bottom of the table to the top-two of the Championship in two years and will eye the title in their very first appearance in the final.
The two sides have equally divided stakes with each side winning three matches each in the six clashes between them and every alternate match had a different winner.
Kerala’s strength lies in its counter-attacks
Kerala’s strength has been attacking on the counter, with long balls arriving from the midfield into the box, aiding forwards Alvaro Vazquez and Jose Pereyra Diaz to guide the ball into the net. The same strategy crushed a defensively solid Jamshedpur FC and coach Ivan Vukomanovic is likely to stick to the same plan that has pulled his side to the very end of the tournament.
Adrian Luna, who has been his target man in attack and orchestrates attacks from midfield, however, remains uncertain to start in the finals. Vukomanovic stated that he had taken a knock in the morning. The Uruguayan has scored six goals and crafted seven assists for the Blasters, including a goal in their previous match, and his absence may be a big blow to the three-time finalist.
A ray of hope for them, however, might be a possible return for Sahal Abdul Samad, who had been sidelined in the second leg of the semifinal with a hamstring injury. “Sahal Samad practised today morning and will join the team in the evening session," Vukomanovic told the press before the match.
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At the back, KBFC has had the firm pairing of Hormipam Ruivah and Marko Leskovic, with the team having eight clean sheets – the most in the league, as compared Hyderabad's three.
The last time Kerala Blasters reached the finals, Steve Coppell was the coach and Vukomanovic was managing a club in Slovakia, while Hyderabad FC had not been formed.
The Blasters finished second from the bottom in the league last season and in a year, have earned double the number of points (34) they managed the last time, have beaten the ISL League Winners’ Shield winner, Jamshedpur FC, in the semifinals, and stormed into their third final in the league’s history – the first in six years.
Hyderabad dangerous in set-pieces
Hyderabad FC has been stifled by a coronavirus outbreak but has managed to sail through the semis owing to its attacking prowess and squad depth. “We have prepared all this for this moment,” said HFC captain Joao Victor in the pre-match press conference.
“I think we have tried all our life to play in a game like this. For Bart (Bartholomew Ogbeche), Sana (Chinglensana Singh), it is very important for us. It is hard being in a bubble, being away from the family is hard,” he added.
The Nizams have been extremely dangerous through set-pieces and have scored 12 goals from such situations – double of how many goals the Blasters have scores from set-pieces.
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Javier Siverio has been Hyderabad's prodigal striker, starting the season as a super-sub and making his way into the starting eleven. Marquez’s side has scored the most goals in the tournament and has the highest goal scorer this season as well as in the League’s history, Ogbeche to lead its attack.
“I am very satisfied with the players. It has been a pleasure coaching these players. It is just one game and anything can happen,” HFC head coach Marquez said.
“You can expect everything in the finals because the situation now is better, because at the same time last month, we did not know which players were fit, as we had seven players who had gone from the hotel straight to the beach,” he added.
When HFC went behind in the first leg of the semifinal against ATK Mohun Bagan, it was Ogbeche who opened the scoring for Hyderabad. However, with Edu Garcia leaving, the Nizams have been forced to push the Nigerian back to the No. 10 position (of an attacking midfielder) in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Siverio heading the attack.
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That very shape may be the be-all and end-all for HFC, for KBFC has mastered squeezing out an opposition playing in that shape, i.e. Jamshedpur FC. Greg Stewart, JFC’s No. 10, was cornered by Hormipam Ruivah and Harmanjot Khabra in the semifinal. Whether Ogbeche awaits that fate or not, however, will only be seen in the final.
Marquez arrived at Hyderabad FC after the team's disastrous opening season where it finished at the bottom of the league table. Within two years, he had galvanized the side into a relentless set of sporting individuals playing beautiful football.
As Goa gets to witness a full-capacity of fans into the stadium back again, it is certain that yellow will lift the trophy — whether it is the first-time finalist Hyderabad FC, or the three-time finalist Kerala Blasters.