Dabang Delhi KC and Bengal Warriors face off in the final of Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) Season 7 on Saturday. Both teams are contesting their first final and there is little to separate them given the stats and their recent encounters. ESPN's staff members offer their predictions on who will win the final and why.
Teen sensation Naveen to lead Delhi to a well-deserved title
The Warriors are the only team that Delhi have not beaten this season. The biggest problem they have faced against Bengal is the lack of support from the team's other raiders for Naveen.
They threw away a comfortable eight-point lead in the second half when the two teams met in their first game. In their second fixture, Bengal comfortably led 36-20 when captain Maninder Singh got injured in the second half. They held on to win that match 42-33 but it is worth noting that Delhi won 13 of the 19 points after Maninder was injured. This year's final might be similar to last year's, where Pawan Kumar Sehrawat almost single-handedly defeated the Gujarat Fortunegiants.
One area where the Bengal unit has a significant advantage over Delhi, though, is in their bench strength. Meraj Sheykh has been a fine player in the PKL for many seasons now but has had a season of struggle, which has meant that Delhi have not been able to use him as an impact substitute like in the past. Bengal, on the other hand, have plenty of quality raiders but their two first-choice covers, Jeeva Kumar and Mayur Shivtarkar, might be easy pickings for a raider of the quality of Naveen.
Expect the match to be a close contest but Naveen's class should see Delhi prevail -- by less than seven points.
Bengal Warriors to make a surprise comeback to win in the final moments
I'm going to go with a win for Bengal. This team has been the dark horse throughout the tournament. When they had let go of experienced players like Surjeet Singh and Ran Singh before the auctions, very few would have thought that a young team with a new coach -- BC Ramesh -- and a new captain, Maninder, could perform this well. But they have, time and again, surpassed all expectations to make their maiden final in seven seasons.
Currently, even as Delhi have the edge considering Maninder's injury, the fact that the latter feels fit and prepared is a good sign. He is a match-winner and has had years of experience behind him, which might help the Bengal team in their very last match this season. Even if he doesn't play, players such as Sukesh Hegde, Mohammad Esmaeil Nabibakhsh and K Prapanjan have the talent to rake in the points for the team. Maninder, I feel, will be used as a substitute and only play in the second half, preserving his energy.
Bengal have a tendency to bother Delhi's superstar raider Naveen, and the likes of Baldev Singh, Jeeva Kumar and Rinku Narwal have often been successful in benching him in crunch situations. The team also has a tendency to turn things around for themselves in the last moment -- take for example their semi-final against U Mumba where they held their nerves in the last two minutes to win by two points after the score was tied at 35-35. The defence, with the able support of Nabibakhsh, has the potential to turn things around for themselves.
So I anticipate a similar surprise, street-smart win for this team to give their brilliant season a befitting end.
Bengal's lead in this matchup and their recent matches gives them a slight edge
There is little to separate Delhi and Bengal ahead of the final. Statistically, Delhi seem to have Bengal beat in most departments. Naveen, their top raider, has outscored Maninder, Bengal's top raider, by some distance. As a team, Delhi rank above Bengal in most scoring metrics, with points conceded the one notable statistic where Bengal have done better. Delhi have been the most consistent team this season, with their 15-4 win-loss record in the group stages slightly better than Bengal's 14-5 record, but they have not managed a win over Bengal yet this season.
It's those two matches, as well as some of Bengal's recent games, that tilt the odds in their favour for me. Bengal's season has been about several players making regular contributions to the team and that was perhaps best highlighted in the way they rallied to a two-point win over U Mumba in the semi-finals, in the absence of their best player. To be fair, there is more to Delhi too than just Naveen, who could well win the final on his own, especially given the uncertainty around Maninder's form and fitness.
But Bengal's edge in this particular matchup this season, as well as the kind of belief their semi-final win is likely to have given them, makes me think they will win this final.