Hyderabad FC vs Kerala Blasters FC.
120 days, 114 games so far, 352 goals and we've arrived at the culmination of season 8 of the Indian Super League. It's been arguably one of the best seasons ever, with a playoff and title race that went down to the wire, with the semifinals also decided by narrow margins.
Two very different teams, with managers with different philosophies, yet with a common theme of trusting their Indian players have made the final. It's an intriguing matchup nonetheless, the highest scoring team (Hyderabad) against the team with the most clean sheets (Kerala Blasters). At stake? History for both clubs, neither of whom have won the ISL outright.
The Blasters have been here before, experiencing the agony of an injury time winner in 2014 and the pain of losing on penalties in 2016, both at the hands of ATK. Hyderabad, meanwhile, had never made the playoffs until this season.
The regular season saw Kerala squeak through in fourth place, while Hyderabad finished five points behind league shield winners Jamshedpur FC in second place, after Covid-19 disrupted their run-in. Hyderabad saw off the threat of ATK Mohun Bagan in the semifinals, weathering attack after attack as Laxmikant Kattimani held firm in a 3-2 aggregate win. Kerala Blasters on the other hand, relied on the individual brilliance of Adrian Luna and Sahal Abdul Samad in an aggregate 2-1 win over Jamshedpur.
Nothing's been confirmed as of yet, but credible reports of Sahal being injured have been making the rounds. The Blasters' attacking midfielder reportedly suffered a minor muscle tear in the 2nd leg of the semifinal against Jamshedpur FC, and is set to miss the final. The 24-year-old reportedly missed the Blasters' group training session on Friday and Saturday, although was seen being able to do a light jog. Nishu Kumar or Rahul KP ought to make the lineup for Ivan Vukomanovic's side should Sahal not be fit for the showpiece event.
Adrian Luna also faces a late fitness test ahead of the final, but is expected to be available.
Meanwhile, Hyderabad FC boss Manolo Marquez confirmed that Joel Chianese and Ashish Rai were fit to feature in the final, having only just recovered from Covid-19. However, he kept his cards close to his chest regarding the duo making the starting XI. Chianese's return as an attacking midfielder would allow Bart Ogbeche to return to his favoured #9 role, with Javi Siverio dropping to the bench. Nim Dorjee has put in a decent shift in the absence of Rai and might retain his place.
Nim Dorjee and Joao Victor vs Adrian Luna
Such has been Luna's impact this season, that you wouldn't put it past Manolo Marquez putting two players on him to stifle his creative instincts (10 big chances created this season, the most of any player). Luna starts from the left and has the freedom to roam inside, which usually results in the right-back being dragged out of position, necessitating the intervention of a defensive midfielder.
In the most recent game between these two sides, Manolo Marquez tasked Souvik Chakraborty with marshalling Luna, but the midfielder was substituted at half time, having struggled to keep the Uruguayan quiet. Joao Victor's experience might be better suited to containing the tricky Luna, although that's easier said than done. Nim Dorjee had his moments against Liston Colaco in the semifinal, but struggled to deal with his pace, which might not be as problematic against Luna.
In Sahal's absence, the burden of creation and goal-scoring from midfield falls ever more on Luna's shoulders but as he proved with his stunning winner against Jamshedpur in the semifinals, he's one for the big games.
Bart Ogbeche vs Hormipam Ruivah
In keeping with the unpredictable nature of the ISL this season, the league's top-scorer might not even start in his favoured position as a striker. The Nigerian has been featuring in the #10 role for Hyderabad in Joel Chianese's absence, although looked distinctly uncomfortable in the 2nd leg of the semifinal against ATK Mohun Bagan, where he repeatedly lost the ball under pressure as his team sat back and required him to drop back.
It's unlikely that Manolo Marquez will require his team to sit back and absorb pressure once more, so Ogbeche will be free to drift into the striking positions behind Javi Siverio, ever ready for a cutback from one of Aniket Jadhav, Mohammed Yasir, Akash Mishra or even Nikhil Poojary down Hyderabad's wings.
Conveniently, Hormipam leads the league in clearances, averaging 5.2 clearances per 90, and thus ought to be on hand to prevent Ogbeche from applying one of his deadly finishes, that scoff at the notion of xG (18 goals from 8.5 xG is ... not normal)
For the first time in two years, an Indian Super League match will take place in the presence of crowds. And what a crowd it will be. The Goan government has allowed 100% capacity at the PJN Stadium in Fatorda, with sales of tickets selling out quite quickly. We can expect a full house and with Kerala Blasters involved, it will probably be a sea of yellow (despite the Blasters playing in their blue away kit for the final).
Hyderabad had to weather a storm in their final moments against ATK Mohun Bagan in their semifinal tie, yet a similar situation here could see them capitulate, especially with a partisan crowd rooting against them. The ISL has made a point of showcasing the 12th man in every game this season and for once, the 12th man might actually have quite the impact.
Matches played: 6
Hyderabad FC wins: 3
Kerala Blasters FC wins: 3
Hyderabad FC (4-2-3-1): Laxmikant Kattimani (GK); Nim Dorjee, Sana Singh, Juanan, Akash Mishra; Joao Victor, Souvik Chakraborty; Mohammed Yasir, Bart Ogbeche, Aniket Jadhav; Javi Siverio
Kerala Blasters FC (4-2-2-2): Prabsukhan Gill (GK); Harmanjot Khabra, Hormipam Ruivah, Marko Leskovic, Sanjeev Stalin; Puitea, Jeakson Singh; Nishu Kumar, Adrian Luna; Alvaro Vazquez, Jorge Pereyra Diaz