ISL: ATK wins as Kerala stumbles in final yet again

It happened in that cold night in Munich in 2012, when Chelsea crawled back to win the Champions League against home-side Bayern Munich. It happened in Goa last ISL season when Chennaiyin FC ran away with the title. It happened again in Paris this year when host France lost to Portugal at EURO 2016. Now it has happened again in Kochi. Home team Kerala Blasters squandered a one-goal lead to lose to Atletico de Kolkata in penalties in the Hero Indian Super League season three final.

Kerala took the lead in the 38th minute when Kerala-born striker Mohammed Rafi nodded in a corner past the outstretched arms of ATK ‘keeper Debjit Majumder. But the lead only lasted seven minutes as ATK pulled one back through a thumping header by centre-back Henrique Sereno.

The match saw no more goals in regulation time or added time and was eventually decided on penalties. ATK keeper Majummder saved Kerala defender Hengbart’s penalty, the fifth one with scores level 3-3, with his feet, and in the subsequent penalty, Jewel Raja scored, to seal the title for ATK. This is the second time Saurav Ganguly-owned ATK has defeated Sachin Tendulkar’s Kerala Blasters.

Formations

Kerala manager opted to retain the core of the team that defeated Delhi Dynamos over two-legs. But semifinal hero Sandip Nandy was replaced by ex-Arsenal ‘keeper Graham stack – Coppell opting for the Englishman’s big match experience for the final. That meant Blasters would have one less foreigner in the team. Suspended left-back Josu was replaced, albeit quite strangely, by central midfielder Ishfaq Ahmed, who is also the team’s assistant coach. Duckens Nazon and Mohmmed Rafi headed the front line, while Kervens Belfort and C.K. Vineeth took-up position in the wings, in Coppell’s much preferred 4-4-1-1 formation.

Jewel Raja’s outstanding performance in the semifinal second leg against Mumbai City FC earned him a place along with Borja Fernandes in ATK’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Indian national team defender Arnab Mondal missed the match due to an injury with Tiri and Henrique Sereno forming the centre-back pairing. Canadian Hume partnered Postiga in the front for ATK with Sameehg Doutie and Lalrindika Ralte in the wings.

Summary

The Home-team started brightly, with Vineeth finding space in the right-wing after being played-in by Hengbart in the second minute of the match. But the winger’s cross fell in no-man’s land. Blasters had another crack at goal when Raja fouled Nazon near the box. But Mehtab’s distribution failed to meet any heads in the box.

Blasters created another great opportunity in the 10th minute when Belfort found space in the left-flank after a quick step-over. Rafi, who picked the pass from Belfort, delayed his shot slightly, which allowed Tiri to block the shot.

At the other end, ATK was begging to find its stride. In the 14th minute, Hume and Postiga exchanged passes, but the Portguese forward shot wide. The striker had another two shots at the goal, in the 21st and 22nd minutes, but failed to work ‘keeper Stack.

Kerala, playing without a proper left-back, was always going to find tough against the pace of Doutie and the South African almost created the first goal of the match, when his cross from right-wing narrowly missed Hume, who was rushing into the box.

Vineeth, who looked weighed down by the pressure of the match with some uncharacteristically poor touches, finally got into the act, when he cut-in from the right-flank to hit a curler with his left foot. Luckily, for ATK, it went straight to ‘keeper Majumder.

Blasters lost its captain Hughes to a groin-injury in the 35th minute.

The game’s opener came in the 38th minute, when Rafi climbed the highest to head to ball in from a Mehtab corner and make the crowd go berserk.

But the excitement was short-lived and ATK found an equalizer in the 44th minute. Like the host, ATK broke the defense through a corner – Portgueuse defender Sereno breaking free of his marker, Jhingan, to thump in a header. The first half ended in parity.

Both teams started the second-half cautiously, happy to sit back and wait for the opposition to make the mistake. Nazon had a shot saved in the 64th minute while Postiga drew an acrobatic save out of Stack in the 66th minute. Coach Molina withdrew the Portuguese striker in the 67th minute to bring-in creative midfielder Javi Lara, who scored the winner against Kerala when the teams last met in Kochi.

Kerala brought in semi-final hero Mohammed Rafique and Antonio German to spice up the attack. Vineeth moved to his favoured secondary striker role while Rafique took up the right wing.

The substitutions did not yield any results for both the sides though as the match moved into the extra-time.

With the teams looking jaded, this was afterall their third match in a week’s time, the extra-time played with extra-caution. Touches were going wrong, tackles were coming in late and set-pieces were missing their targets as the wear and tear of the grueling season suddenly started showing on the players. Kerala’s Ishfaq Ahmed and Jhingan received yellow cards in an otherwise un-eventful first period of added time.

The second session offered much the same – a 110th minute effort from Ralte forcing some desperate defending from the Kerala back-line. Kerala had its chance when Belfort broke free in the left. But his shot was blocked by the rushing ATK defenders.

Kerala started the penalty shoot-out with German and the Englishman send the ATK keeper the wrong way to give Blasters the lead. Iain Hume missed ATK’s penalty to give Kerala the advantage. Belfort and Doutie converted their kicks before Blasters’ N’Doye struck one over the post. Borja equalized the scores with his penalty after which Rafique and Lara converted theirs. In the last kick, Mazumdar saved Hengbart and Raja converted his, to clinch ATK the title.

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