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ISL final: Hyderabad gives Kerala the blues

Written by corres2

Hyderabad FC goalkeeper Laxmikant Kattimani saved three penalties in the tie-breaker and won his team its maiden Indian Super League title. This was after the final against Kerala Blasters on Sunday couldn’t provide a winner in 120 minutes of football. Hyderabad, only three seasons old, came last in their inaugural ISL campaign, and had missed out on the playoffs by two points last year. They first scored a late equaliser to make it 1-1, before prevailing from the penalty spot.

For Kerala, this was a third defeat in the ISL final, after stumbling at the finish line in 2014 and 2016 as well.

An almost-capacity stadium in Panaji was largely filled with Kerala supporters, who had made the 15-hour bus journey to the Goan capital. During the first 10 minutes, neither team was able to string together a sequence of passes. Nerves and the first instance of a crowded stadium this season seemed to be taking a toll. But even then, the contours of Kerala’s gameplan started to take shape.

Hyderabad fullbacks Akash Mishra and Ashish Rai have consistently been enterprising this season, carrying the ball from the back, cutting into the middle of the park and then providing outlets for their team to spread the play in the final third of the pitch. Kerala planned and, to an extent, countered this threat, by pushing their players wide as well, leaving no space for the two to start galloping with the ball.

But as the game opened up after a dull first 30 minutes, so did space in the midfield. Hyderabad striker Bartholomew Ogbeche, in the 37th minute, shot off a pass to midfielder Joel Chianese on the right of the park. Joel then fired in a cross but the ball went too deep. At the other end, Blasters’ midfielder Adrian Luna lobbed a pass into the Hyderabad box. After a couple of mistimed headers, the ball landed at the feet of striker Alvaro Vazquez, who somehow blasted a shot from the far right of the Hyderabad box and hit the crossbar. Minutes later, a Hyderabad free-kick almost turned into a goal but substitute Javier Siverio’s header was directed straight into the hands of the ’keeper. It was goalless at the break. Kerala had won the possession battle but Hyderabad were starting to grow into the game.

Ten minutes into the second half, Hyderabad fashioned a couple of shots towards goal. Joao Victor took a long-range pop but Kerala goalkeeper Prabhsukhan Gill caught the ball with ease. A few minutes later, Ashish Rai went on a run along the touchline and squeaked in a pass to Ogbeche, whose first touch put him through on goal. But the Nigerian shot the ball over the crossbar. Hyderabad seemed to be inching closer.

Mistake and redemption

And yet, the ISL final deadlock was broken by a goalkeeping error. Kattimani has been the apple of his team’s eye, making the highest number of saves this season among all custodians. But his near post was breached rather easily as Rahul KP picked the ball up in the midfield and was allowed to take a pop at goal from outside the box by a Hyderabad defensive line that kept retreating rather than challenge the midfielder. The shot was low and driven hard but should have been saved.

Rahul then put on his cape again to be Kerala’s hero at the other end. An Ogbeche free kick, right on the edge of the box, was parried by Gill in the 75th minute. But the rebound landed to Juanan, who was denied by a last-gasp tackle by Rahul.

With time ticking, it seemed like Kerala finally had their first ISL title. That was until the 87th minute. Hyderabad has had a penchant for scoring late in games this season. Sahil Tavora has made 19 appearances this season, and all of them from the bench. A free kick deep from the midfield was cleared by Kerala. But Tavora was sitting right outside the box and the clearance landed in his path. Taking a shot on the half-volley, the Goan, in Goa playing for Hyderabad, scored a screamer to keep his team in the final. A few minutes later, the referee blew his whistle and for the third time in eight years, the ISL final went to extra time.

In the first half of extra time, Kerala fashioned themselves the only chance of note. An Adrian Luma corner found midfielder Jeakson Singh, who directed a header on goal. But the ball careened off the crossbar, the second time on the night for Kerala. In the second half, it was Hyderabad who had the best opportunity. Ogbeche had the time to place his shot after a pass came in from the wings. But the Nigerian’s quiet night in front of goal continued as his attempt was cleared off the line. Thirty minutes of extra time could not decide a winner and the final came down to penalties.

There, Kattimani redeemed himself and how! The 32-year-old was constantly chatting with Kerala’s penalty takers, moving the ball away from the spot and constantly distracting the penalty takers. The result – a defining shootout performance with three key saves on shots by Marko Leskovic, Nishu Kumar and Jeakson – and an ISL trophy to boot.

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