Mumbai City vs Kerala Blasters, 2 March. City are fourth, leading the Blasters by one point. With one game to go for both sides after this. It's a virtual knockout. The playoff race this Indian Super League season has seen many turns. It was to see another.
18:43: Sahal Abdul Samad gets the ball at feet. Kerala Blasters are deep in Mumbai City's half, pumping in long balls down the channel and counter-pressing City's attempts to play it out from the back. Rahul Bheke's attempted ball into the middle has bounced over Cassio Gabriel's head and Samad has killed it dead with one touch.
Samad's in the middle of the pitch in the 19th minute of the game because that's how the Blasters play under Ivan Vukomanovic. Nominally, it's Samad on the right, Adrian Luna on the left, Alvaro Vazquez and Roberto Pereyra Diaz up top. But at any point in time, they can be anywhere across the pitch. It's a forward unit that is a study in ceaseless motion, pulling defences all over the place. They are also, as the cliché goes, the first line of defence. Pressing high, pressing in numbers, stressing opponents out, forcing errors. Like this one.
18:44: Samad's next touch is accompanied with a swivel of his hips that squares up Gabriel. His third takes him past the Mumbai man like he's not even there. That last touch looks a bit too heavy, and Apuia comes out, expecting to intercept.
Going into the match, City lead the Blasters by a point. Hyderabad and Jamshedpur have confirmed their places. Less surprisingly, ATK Mohun Bagan are set to go through too. Which leaves the defending champions battling the perennial underachievers for the fourth, and final, playoff spot. As infuriatingly controversial it's been off the pitch this season, the ISL has delivered on it.
18:46: Apuia steps out, some 10 yards outside the Mumbai box, but by the time he gets there, Sahal's on the ball. The touch that had looked too heavy? A ruse to draw the midfielder out. Another swivel of the hips, this time to the right, and Apuia's clutching at thin air.
Samad's first touch, first few touches, have always been sensational. It's what comes after that has often disappointed. His and the Blasters' story have mirrored each other's in the past few seasons. Moments of promise, flashes of brilliance, that fritter away into nothingness -- a dribble that ends with a meek shot off target, a season that starts with multiple wins ending with the team well outside the playoff spots.
18:47: Having left Apuia and Gabriel floundering in his wake, Samad drives on. Vazquez moves out of the channel ahead of him, to the right, but Samad cuts in to the left. Toward City's, and arguably the league's, most imposing defender. Mourtada Fall. At this point there are four blue shirts around Samad, closer than anyone in yellow.
Through most of this lean period, the fans have been behind the team, and him. In 2019-20, the last season this country saw crowds at football matches, then-coach Eelco Schattorie had relegated Samad to the bench. He simply wasn't having any tangible impact on matches. But every time he was brought on, the decibel count at the stadium, home or away, would rise several notches. If the Blasters are the crystallisation of the common Malayalee's love for football, Samad is their great big hope. The one who is to carry forward the legacy of VP Sathyan, CV Pappachan, Jo Paul Ancheri... IM Vijayan. It's simply never happened. The skill has always been there, as has the swagger (nothing screams baller quite like ankle-length socks), but there's been no consistency, no end product.
18:48: A drop of the shoulder, another swivel and Fall's squared up too, helpless. At the edge of the box now, he angles himself for a shot to the far post, to Mohammad Nawaz's right. Fall, Mehtab Singh, Nawaz all buy it. At the last possible second, though, he closes his foot, wraps it around the ball, and passes it into the goal at the near post. Mehtab's attempted block is misplaced, Fall's never comes, Nawaz is completely wrong-footed. Eight touches, five seconds, and an opening goal in a virtual knockout. Sahal Abdul Samad, game changer.
The goal would set up a comfortable Blasters win, 3-1, as Vazquez added a tap-in and a penalty. Samad, though, was the player of the moment. Before this season, he had 1 goal in 51 appearances. Wednesday saw his fifth in 19 appearances this season. Game changer indeed.
It's not just the end product, though. He's worked harder than ever before, running his socks off as part of that pressing machine. Luna has taken over the burden of creativity, and the mantle of best technical footballer at the club. Vazquez is right behind him. Those two, and Diaz, work harder than anyone on the pitch. There's been no place to hide for anyone else. Load lightened by Luna's presence, Samad's tactical awareness has shone through, his on-the-ball game has been brought back to the basics. Like for this goal, he's just done the simple things well, and that, finally, appears to have unlocked him.
Samad, like the Blasters, have been a joy to watch this season. A point in their next match against FC Goa, and we'll see more of them. A first ISL semi-final since 2016 beckons, and deservedly so.