Three months, 136 matches and several permutations and combinations later, season 7 of the Pro Kabaddi League is one-step away from its final. What makes it even sweeter is that the top-two teams from the league stage, Dabang Delhi KC and Bengal Warriors, will be playing their maiden final on Saturday in Ahmedabad.
ESPN takes a look at the major talking points going into the final day of the tournament.
Head-to-head: Advantage Bengal?
Bengal have a 1-0 lead against Delhi in the head-to-head in this year's tournament. They have met Delhi twice this season, tying once and winning by a huge nine-point margin on the other occasion. In fact, they remain the only team that Delhi haven't defeated even once this time.
Delhi coach Krishan Kumar Hooda, at the pre-match press conference, had a counter-argument to this. "If you go just by head-to-head, don't forget that Delhi had beaten Bengal thrice last season, including once in the playoffs." Hooda believes that considering Bengal as favourites just on the basis of their earlier matches will not be right since "in a game like kabaddi, anything can happen at any point."
BC Ramesh, coach of Bengal Warriors, agreed with the assessment. "In kabaddi, there's a bit of a luck factor involved," he says. "It depends on whose day it is, and who plays the best that day."
Mentor vs. Mentee
It's a little known fact that Hooda used to be his Bengal counterpart's head coach during the latter's playing days with the Indian team. "I've seen him since the time he was a player, and it'll be a good experience to compete with him for the trophy," says Hooda.
Ramesh though, believes the focus should remain "on the teams and their performances." While he thinks it will be interesting to compete with his mentor, he feels "the PKL final should demonstrate exactly why the sport has become so popular, and deserves to get even further recognition going forward."
Side note: In what was perhaps the moment of the press conference, Hooda revealed that he had a conversation with Ramesh regarding the auction bids and realized "if we were to have a PKL in our times, Ramesh could've easily got a 1 crore bid."
The Naveen factor
Naveen Kumar, Delhi's lead raider and top scorer with 285 points so far -- with a record 21 Super 10s in 22 matches under his belt this season -- is expecting nothing less than the title.
"I hope we do get it," he tells ESPN. Touted as an "extraordinary raider" by his teammate Vishal Mane, Naveen will be key to Delhi's performance in the final.
Mohammad Esmaeil Nabibakhsh, the lead all-rounder of the Bengal team reveals, "We take his Super 10s for granted, to be honest. It is almost like a certainty. It's majorly about how much the defence can contain him beyond those 10 points."
The Warriors' Sukesh Hegde too, echoes a similar sentiment, and says that his team is likely "to create an altogether separate strategy against Naveen." After probing further, he says, "[Naveen] is Delhi's strongest raider right now, and our defence has worked well to keep him benched as much as possible in our previous matches." He hopes the pattern can last in the final as well.
The Maninder Mystery
Bengal captain Maninder Singh has been the team's biggest answer to Delhi's unstoppable Naveen. While the latter scores a Super 10 in almost every match, Maninder makes sure his team has enough points in the bank to counter the 19-year-old's raiding genius. His shoulder injury in the final moments of their previous match against Delhi, however, has forced him to stop playing. "I'm personally fit to play and am mentally prepared for the final," Maninder says. "However, ultimately, my physio has to take that call."
The cloud over Maninder's presence might become a problem for Bengal in the final, forcing the support raiders to lock horns with Delhi's in-form raiders like Naveen and Chandran Ranjit. As Sukesh put it in an earlier interaction with ESPN, "If Maninder doesn't play, Prapanjan, Nabibakhsh and I will have to produce a combined performance that otherwise Maninder brings in alone."
Will the defence stand up?
The defence of both teams has been questionable, especially in the last few matches. While the Bengal defence is slow in the beginning and tends to pick up towards the end, Delhi's defence does quite the opposite.
Vishal Mane, a vital part of Delhi's defence, says, "We tend to lose our tempo in the last 10 minutes or so. If we have a lead, the tempo increases, if we don't, it decreases. That affects our performance a lot." In cases like these, Mane believes that mistakes become more common. "The main thing is to stay neutral and not get carried away throughout the match, that'll be crucial," he says.
Ramesh, on the other hand, accepts that the defence hasn't been in their best but "they are getting better with every game." He added that experienced defender Jeeva Kumar's role will be important as Bengal's covers have not been at their best this year. "He hasn't been at his best but in our semi-final against U Mumba, he held his nerve. We are hoping he takes that momentum into the final as well.
While Maninder's injury and his uncertain availability even a day before the final has to be a setback for Bengal, they showed immense resilience while performing against a defence-heavy U Mumba team in the semi-final. Therefore, against Delhi, whose defence tends to concede a lot of points - 784 so far against Bengal's 756 - their remaining raiding team comprising Sukesh, Nabibakhsh and Prapanjan still stand a chance. But the point remains that even if Maninder does come back, he might be rusty -- having not played in the last 20 days.
The main challenge for Bengal would be to combat Naveen, who has been on a back-to-back 20-match Super 10 streak. If the defence controls him, their task can get relatively simpler and the target easier. However, with Chandran Ranjit having shown the ability to win matches single-handedly and thrive under pressure in the past when Naveen has had a rare off day, the odds certainly seem to be in favour of the Delhi side.