Gritty Kerala have the last laugh
DELHI: From a tactical tussle between the two managers and a vociferous Kerala crowd, here are five takeaways from Kerala's gritty win over Delhi Dynamos.
Milan sees red
One of the best Indian performers of the ISL, Milan Singh's transformation from a compact defensive midfielder to one that can contribute generously to attack under Gianluca Zambrotta has been one of the stories of the season. On this night, however, it was a moment of discretion early on that cost his team some valuable momentum soon after Duckens Nazon had fired Kerala back into the lead on aggregate. It perhaps wasn't a tackle that would have seen red at all times, but with referee Dilan Perera, the strict disciplinarian from Sri Lanka, it was always going to be a high-risk manoeuvre when he went in with his foot high on Mehtab Hossain. In retrospect, it was a wise move, as the game had a fair bit of tension at this stage, and Perera sent a strong message for the greater good. Milan recognised his folly and waved one final time to the Delhi crowd, which has come to embrace him as one of their own.
Tactical battle of wits
It wasn't really blitz or rapid chess between head coaches Gianluca Zambrotta and Steve Coppell, but more like a long-drawn battle between two very shrewd and capable tacticians on the night. It was Coppell who appeared to have the upper hand early on with his decision to field Josu Currias on the left wing and leave the eccentric Boris Kadio to mark Marcelinho as left-back. Kadio was doing a great job in the early exchanges, ghosting the ISL top-scorer all the time and chipping away at his patience. He did make an error, though, and that opened up the score for Delhi on the night.
Then when Milan got sent off, Zambrotta would later take off Richard Gadze and introduced a holding midfielder in Memo. This allowed Florent Malouda to get into a centre-forward's role, and the Frenchman actually had a good night running rings around the Kerala defence. Alas, the finish was missing on the night for one of the most consistent marquee players of the league. Coppell then put in some extra scoring prowess with Antonio German and Kervens Belfort, which forced Zambrotta's hand into keeping his nine outfield players the same - barring the subbed Gadze - for as long as possible. It was often not as attractive as a game for a semi-final, but in terms of mind games between the coaches, this was as good as any game in the ISL.
Third time unlucky
The crowd in Delhi celebrated loudly when the full time whistle was blown after 90 minutes. Then they celebrated even louder at the end of the 120 minutes. Well, technically they may not have been wrong, as Delhi maintained their unbeaten record at the Nehru Stadium for the 2016 season. There were some anxious faces as the prospect of a penalty shootout loomed large. And when that moment did come, it was Kerala all the way. The last successful conversion, after a staccato run up to the ball by the man who scored the 2014 final winner Mohammed Rafique, brought the entire Kerala contingent of the crowd to their feet, with plenty of yellow pieces of clothing being swung around. As they say, he who laughs last laughs loudest. Kerala fans proved exactly that, and Rafique will be hoping to get his hands on his second ISL trophy in three years.
Two teams gave everything they had, and then some, for more than two hours in about 14 degrees celsius and 65 % humidity at the Nehru Stadium in Delhi. Kerala Blasters now travel back home to the cauldron of Nehru Stadium in Kochi, where the weather is slightly warmer. There will be tired legs and weary minds, not least of all from the travel to one of the southernmost venues in the league. The only team that will not mind this scenario are Atletico de Kolkata, well-rested after the nine changes to the team made by Jose Molina in the second leg against Mumbai City FC. This title will be Kolkata's to lose, though the support for Kerala could neutralise some of that advantage.
It was (not) all yellow
It was quite clear that Kerala Blasters were always going to feel at home in this clash, considering the high number of Malayalis that live in Delhi. On the way into the ground, it was harder to spot any colour other than yellow - men, women and children were seen wearing the replica jersey of the Kerala Blasters. It was a surprise then to learn that apparently an advice was given to the security to disallow fans from wearing yellow inside the ground. It was easy to laugh off such a suggestion, until messages started coming in on social media in response to a tweet this reporter sent on the presence of a large yellow banner in the galleries. The matter was resolved once the media personnel had a word with the security, and it led to an evening of lively banter and good humour between the two sets of fans.