Kerala eyes revenge against Kolkata at 'Yellow Arena'

The final is all set to be a blockbuster, as two of India's biggest footballing centres — Kerala and Kolkata — go head-to-head in the repeat of the first ISL final.

The ISL final will again see Sachin Tendulkar's Kerala Blasters taking on Sourav Ganguly's Atletico de Kolkata.   -  PTI

Perhaps, amongst the many points that were discussed in the multiple board room meetings between All India Football Federation (AIFF) and IMG-Reliance that culminated in the idea of starting the Indian Super League (ISL), the most prominent one was — how do we end cricket’s hegemony in India?

The ‘gentleman’s game’ has a strangle-hold over the country, from sponsors to audience, with the likes Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar drawing massive crowd support wherever they go and whatever they do (ask Maria Sharapova).

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In that sense, there is a poetic justice to the fact that the final of the ISL season three will be fought between two teams from two regions, where, apart from Goa, a football match is guaranteed to attract as much attention as cricket, if not more.

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When Kerala meets West Bengal, it isn’t merely a football match. It is a clash of two cultures that have, amongst many things, an undying love for the beautiful game, in common. As football purists in the country tell you, if you haven’t seen a Calcutta-derby at Salt Lake Stadium (Kolkata) or a Sevens football match in Malappuram (north Kerala), you haven’t seen football in the country at all.

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What adds more spice to the encounter is the history between the two teams. They met each other in the final of the inaugural season, which Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) won through an injury-time goal. But, things have changed a lot since then. The goalscorer, Kolkata-born Mohammed Rafique, is now a Kerala Blaste,rs player, and converted the winning penalty for the ‘men in yellow’ in the semifinal. Striker Mohammed Rafi has shifted south too. But Kerala’s two most influential foreign players in season one, its highest goal-scorer Iain Hume, and Stephen Pearson, who scored an extra-time goal against Chennaiyin to help Blasters reach the final, now play for ATK.

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In season one, Kerala had finished fourth in the league stages while ATK had finished second. This season it was ATK fourth and Kerala second. Kerala, though, has the added advantage of playing in front of its home crowd.

Throw in the inadvertent cricket connection — the teams are owned by former stars Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar — and we have a cracker of a contest boiling up in Kochi.

Molina’s versatility vs Coppell’s solidity

While both ATK manager Jose Molina and Kerala coach Steve Coppell have relied on a resolute back-four to reach the ISL finals, the tactics employed by both have been different. Coppell has stuck to a classic 4-4-2 (4-4- 1-1) formation throughout the tournament, while Molina has chopped and changed his squad as per requirements. In the second semifinal against Mumbai City FC, he made nine changes to the squad that won the first leg 3-2, including dropping all-time ISL top scorer Iain Hume, to produce a defensive shut-out. The Spanish coach has been able to tailor make his teams because the abundance of talent in ATK’s ranks.





In Stephen Pearson, Borja Fernandes, and Jewel Raja, he has defensive-minded midfielders who can break the opposition attack and initiate counters. The forward combination of Helder Postiga and Iain Hume is perhaps the best in the League, while its supporting cast of Sameehg Doutie, Javi Lara, and Lalrindika Ralte in the midfielder, can pack a punch with their pace and distribution.

Read: >C.K. Vineeth: 'Winning is an addiction, never a pressure'

In the final, Molina is most likely to stick to his preferred 4-2- 3-1 formation. With Robert Lalthlamuana unavailable for selection due to a suspension, Keegan Pereira is likely to take up the role as the left-back. Arnab Mondal should partner Henrique Sereno in the centre while Pritam Kotal will play in the right. Considering Raja’ excellent performance against Mumbai, Molina might be tempted to partner him with Borja as the double pivot, which will then allow him to unleash both Doutie and Lara at a Kerala defence which will not have a natural left-back with Josue Currais suspended. Canadian Hume will spearhead the attack with Postiga occupying a slightly withdrawn role.

Coppell doesn’t exactly have his counterpart’s luxury in picking his Kerala squad, but his team has been defying odds since the beginning of the tournament. While its passionate fans have been likened with German club Borussia Dortmund’s, the team itself is built more on the moulds of the great Italian teams – a combination of grit and defensive solidity.

Playing on the counter, Coppell’s men are happy to nick a goal and defend. The reason for Kerala’s success has been its defense, spearheaded by Aaron Hughes and Cedric Hengbart in centre. Josue, who played as a midfielder in the previous season, has been playing in the left-back position with Sandesh Jhingan in the right. But, with Hughes battling an injury and Josue suspended, Coppell will be forced to make some changes. He has a well-established right-back in Rino Anto, but the local talent has been ineffective in his brief stints in the tournament so far. Midfielder Kadio and defender Pratik Chaudhari are other full-back options for Coppell.

Barring CK Vineeth, none of Kerala’s forwards have shown consistent form. Kervens Belfort has been effective in patches, while Duckens Nazon has impressed in the last few outings. Vineeth, on-loan from Bengaluru FC, has played as a secondary striker recently, but with Antonio German failing to make a mark in the semifinal, he might be shifted to the wings to accommodate striker Rafi. Kerala’s chances of winning, though, will rely heavily on how well the central midfield duo of Azrack-Yassine Mahamat and Mehtab Hossain can shield its defence.

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THE VENUE:

Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, home of Kerala Blasters, with a capacity of 60,000, will be the venue for the ISL season three final. With the League confirming that the tickets have already been sold-out, the stadium is expected to witness a tsunami of yellow waves from Kerala’s loyal fans who call themselves the ‘Manjappada’ (Yellow Army).

The preparations have already started with bus stops being painted yellow and multiple vehicles being hired to bring the fans from all across the country. “We plan to reach early in the stadium and start our chants. We also have acquired yellow light-flares with great difficulty, but we won’t light them inside the stadium and cause our team problems,” confirmed a core member of Manjappada. Kerala is on a six-match winning spree at the Nehru stadium, but interestingly its last defeat came against Atletico.

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