With the frenzy of the inaugural Hero Indian Super League (ISL)campaign now receding, it’s time for the two-legged knockouts, starting with the battle for southern supremacy featuring league table-toppers Chennaiyin FC facing border-rivals Kerala Blasters FC who scraped through in fourth.
Chennaiyin became the first team to qualify for the knockout stage of the campaign, losing only twice in their final 11 matches of the season. Forward Elano Blumer raced to the top of the goal-scoring charts scoring eight goals in his nine appearances. Unfortunately for Chennai, he picked up an injury against FC Pune City and went back to Brazil to recuperate.
Elano has returned from Brazil and could line-up for Chennai in the semi-finals. Now is the time when head coach Marco Materazzi needs his best player back, knowing that his team’s chances of scoring increases tremendously with Elano on the pitch. But Chennaiyin will not have the services of John Stiven Mendoza, who earlier picked up an injury that ruled him out of the tournament.
In what is a big plus for Chennaiyin thoughis the signing of one of football’s greatest defenders: Italian icon Alessandro Nesta. The reason for this was plain and simple, Chennaiyin have kept only a solitary clean sheet in the league campaign and what better time to shore up their defence than before the start of the semi-finals.
Kerala Blasters, on the other hand, haven’t had the most comfortable route to the semi-finals, assuring their place by the skin of their teethin the final match of the campaign. Their top-scorer Iain Hume scored a smart free-kick winner to earn Kerala the win they needed to qualify.
Another player-coach in the league, Englishman David James has been a reassuring figurebetween the sticks for the Blasters but his team aren’t the most effective in front of goal — scoring just 9 times in their 14 league matches, the lowest in the ISL. Even without the goals, KBFC has seen the highest footfall in the league forany team, which has undoubtedly helped the side.
James acknowledged the same before their last encounter against Chennaiyin at home which they eventually lost, “I know it is going to be tough for us tomorrow and I am sure that we are going to need the 50,000 plus fans behind us and we must make them our 12th man. They are very important to us.”
Materazzi echoed similar sentiments on the same match, “The crowd in Kerala is very good, they (Kerala Blasters) never lose (at home), but every game is different.” Chennaiyin went on to win in Kochi, which has been Kerala’s only home defeat.
Kerala have their own depth in the squad with young Indian defender Sandesh Jhingan and other more experienced players such as Mehtab Hossain and Renedy Singh along with Nigerian Penn Orji helping the team out in midfield. However, their focal point of attack will undoubtedly be the Canadian Iain Hume, who has four goals and two assists to his name and can turn the game on its head with his incessant running and constant presence in the opposition’s penalty area.
Chennaiyin clearly start as the favourites with a more superior team on paper,while goal-shy Kerala Blasters will need to find a level they are yet to hit in the campaign to stand any chance of reaching the grand final in Mumbai.