PKL 9 semifinals preview: Former champions, youngest team in the league, playoff debutants fight it out for place in final

Jaipur Pink Panthers PKL

Four teams. Two former champions. One making its first appearance in the semifinals. It's Do-Or-Die time in the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL 9).

The four teams in question are Jaipur Pink Panthers, Puneri Paltan, Bengaluru Bulls and Tamil Thalaivas. The Panthers will take on Bengaluru Bulls in the first game, while Puneri Paltan will lock horns with Tamil Thalaivas to decide the second finalist.

A bit about the teams... Jaipur Pink Panthers, champions of the first PKL season, are eager to bring back their glory days after eight long years, while Bengaluru Bulls yearn to become the first team since Patna Pirates to win multiple PKL titles.

Then there is Puneri Paltan, who made a bold move of assembling a super young squad - the average age is 22! - led by PKL's and arguably the world's most successful non-Indian kabaddi player in Fazel Atrachali.

No semifinal is complete without an underdog, and that brings us to Tamil Thalaivas. The Thalaivas lost two captains - their star signing Pawan Sehrawat and his deputy Sagar Rathee - to injuries but they have miraculously managed to extend their fairytale run under coach Ashan Kumar. Call them the Leicester City of the PKL if you will - the odds of them making the playoffs were much worse than Leicester's 4000-1 (of winning the Premier League).

Here's what to expect from the two semifinals.

Jaipur Pink Panthers v Bengaluru Bulls

Who are the players to watch out for?

For starters, the two best raiders in PKL 9: Arjun Deshwal (286 raid points) and Bharat Hooda (272 raid points). Then we've got the League's second and third-best defenders in Ankush Rathee (81 tackle points) and Bulls' Saurabh Nandal (68 tackle points).

Four key players, each playing the exact same position as his counterpart. This should be fun.

What's the storyline?

So the Bulls and Panthers have played 17 times in PKL so far and there's nothing to separate them - they've each won eight games and one was a tie. They've beaten each other this season, so it all really boils down to Thursday's semifinal.

When did either team last reach the semifinals?

Jaipur Pink Panthers have made it to the semis after six years - they finished runners-up in season four.

The Bengaluru Bulls are no strangers to the last-four stage: this is their fourth successive appearance since winning the title in season six.

How did the two teams reach the semis?

Jaipur Pink Panthers were the most consistent team in the group stages and earned their slot in the last four by topping the table with 82 points. It was their best-ever finish since their title-winning campaign in 2014.

Bengaluru Bulls come into the game against the Panthers after decimating defending champions Dabang Delhi in the eliminator on Tuesday. Bharat was a riot, as he has so often been this season, propelling the Bulls to a mighty 22-point win to march ahead.

Where will the game be won?

On paper, this is a classic defence vs attack contest with the Panthers doing the tackling. But that may not hold true in a game like this which features so many game-changers. The major battles will be Bharat vs Ankush and Avinash vs Saurabh...but someone like Rahul Chaudhari or Vikash Khandola might also spring up a surprise. It will come down to who makes the least mistakes. The margin for error is very small in this one.

Puneri Paltan v Tamil Thalaivas

Who are the players to watch out for?

Two trios: Aslam Inamdar, Mohit Goyat and Akash Shinde for Puneri Paltan; Narender Hoshiyar, Ajinkya Pawar and Himanshu for Tamil Thalaivas.

And it goes without saying...Fazel. He's always a player to watch out for.

What's the storyline?

There is a bit of a rivalry here...Puneri Paltan lost to Tamil Thalaivas by one point when they first met this season and that was because of an error of judgment from Fazel. He thought it was a do-or-die raid and held his defence back when in reality, it was not a do-or-die raid and the raider went back empty-handed to seal the win for Thalaivas. A very rare brain fade from Fazel, he swore to beat the Thalaivas in their next game (which was hardly three days away.) And they did...Puneri Paltan won the game by one point - the exact margin they'd lost the first game by.

Historically, both teams have won thrice against each other and have shared two ties. No upper hand here, as far as the numbers go.

When did either team last reach the semifinals?

Puneri Paltan have played two semifinals so far: season three (lost to eventual champions Patna Pirates) and season four (once again lost to eventual champions Patna Pirates). They'll be happy they aren't facing Patna Pirates this time around!

Tamil Thalaivas have never made it to the playoffs, let alone the semifinals. This has been their best season yet and they will hope to cause yet another upset against Puneri Paltan. B̶e̶g̶i̶n̶n̶e̶r̶s̶'̶ Debutants' luck, anybody?

How did the two teams reach the semis?

Puneri Paltan finished second after the League stage to assure themselves of a place in the semis. The team is peppered with some of the best young talents in the country and Fazel's captaincy has resulted in a smooth-functioning unit.

Tamil Thalaivas are here on the back of a heart-pounding tie-breaker win over Pardeep Narwal's UP Yoddhas. That triumph will give them a reason to believe that they just can go all the way.

Where will the game be won?

The Tamil Thalaivas defence - which is the best in PKL 9 with 260 tackle points - will need to be watertight to contain Puneri Paltan's three-prong raiding unit. The fact that Sagar isn't around will be a concern, but the Thalaivas have stepped up in his absence.

Aslam, Mohit and Akash are familiar faces to the Thalaivas defence by now, but there are names on the bench like Aditya Shinde and Mohammad Esmaeil Nabibakhsh, who could also wreak havoc.

It will also be interesting to see how Fazel handles Narender, who is the Thalaivas' superstar this year. Narender is as slippery as they get and can turn around the game in a matter of seconds, as can current captain Ajinkya Pawar, PKL 9's Mr Super Raid.