ISL 2020-21: Sahal Abdul Samad hype train arrives as Kerala Blasters huffs and puffs in ISL

ISL 2020: On his return to action against SC East Bengal, Sahal Abdul Samad showed what the Kerala Blasters team had been missing in the last month.

Sahal Abdul Samad had a few telling touches in Kerala Blasters' draw against SC East Bengal.   -  ISL/Sportzpics

Kerala Blasters fell behind twice in their first five matches this season, but were not able to mount a comeback in either game. Again, the side went behind against SC East Bengal on Sunday after conceding an own goal in the first quarter.

This time, however, a comeback was scripted. Blasters coach Kibu Vicuna made three changes after the half-time break, including introducing his "favourite player in the ISL", Sahal Abdul Samad.

Despite the Blasters' struggles, a hype train around Sahal, 23, has been chugging along for a while. There was no easing into action for Sahal. The midfielder had been out for a month with a quad injury. Back in, he had to play on the left side of the forward line and help his team get something out of the game.

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With his first touch of the ball, he made a simple pass back to Jessel Carneiro. With his second, he sold his teammate Vicente Gomez short but immediately ran on to the loose ball and played a first time reverse pass to Carneiro, whose cross was cut off.

For his third touch, Sahal pulled off his highlight reel move, which gave a glimpse of why there is a buzz about him. He dropped further infield, closely followed by Matti Steinman, as Blasters keeper Albino Gomes rifled a kick low and hard into the centre circle. With Steinman breathing down his neck, Sahal killed the pace on the ball by chesting it down, feigned to turn right before pirouetting over the ball to turn away and set Blasters on the break. First, Steinman fell for the feign and turn. Then, he actually stumbled and fell over.  

Sahal celebrates Jeakson's late equaliser against East Bengal. - ISL/Sportzpics

But the pressing concern for a vested Blasters fan would have been how this can translate into goals or assists, when the team has struggled to create goal-scoring chances this season.

There are plenty of expectations surrounding Sahal from the vociferous Kerala Blasters fan base. They consider the UAE-born Kerala footballer one of their own. And his skills on the ball make them want more out of him. Turning and running at defenders is what Sahal loves to do but this Blasters team, which hasn't been able to challenge for the title in the last four seasons, needs him to be so much more.

Last season, manager Eelco Schattorie's tough love was a testing period for both Sahal and the loyal Manjappada. But Vicuna, an I-League-winning coach, has come in and tried to restore the belief back in the player. Case in point, his "favourite player" endorsement of Sahal.

In the 71st minute, Sahal showed a bit more of what he can offer, and what Vicuna hopes he can add to this misfiring team, in the final third of the game. East Bengal goalkeeper Debjit Majumder rushed off his line to punch the ball away and Sahal jumped to head into the path of an unmarked Jordan Murray inside the box. It needed a stunning fingertip save from Debjit to keep the shot from going in.

Between then and until the final minutes of the stoppage time, Sahal didn't have much to do on the ball but was constantly on the move: dropping deep to show for his teammates and making runs down the channel to provide an outlet.

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With Blasters piling on the pressure and the men forward in search of the equaliser, Sahal's quality came through in the final minutes of the game. His deflected effort won his team a corner from which the ball broke on to the edge of the box. It might have been tempting for him to go for glory and have a crack at goal through a pile of bodies from a difficult angle. Instead, he set himself up with two touches and hooked an outswinging cross into the six-yard area, where Jeakson Singh leapt high to power home the goal.

Sahal had one more touch left in the game, which could have sealed the three points for Blasters. He outran Scott Neville to get on the end of a hooked pass by Murray but had his outside of the boot shot deflected behind for a corner.

"He made a very good change [to the game]," said Vicuna, after the game. The draw earned his team a point. This is still the Blasters' worst start to a season after failing to win any of their first six matches. On Sunday, Sahal showed flashes of what this team has been missing.

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