Indian Super League final
Kerala Blasters v Atletico de Kolkata, Kochi
5.30pm, Sunday, Abu Dhabi Sports 6HD
Aaron Hughes knows what it's like to play in front of a full house in a region passionate about its football. He spent eight years at Newcastle United at a time when the Toon Army was at its most animated, with Sir Bobby Robson bringing back the good times after the heartbreak of the title run-ins under Kevin Keegan.
On Sunday evening, Hughes will play in front of an even larger and more vocal crowd as Kerala Blasters attempt to win the Indian Super League (ISL) final against Atletico de Kolkata on their own turf. The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi can seat more than 60,000, and the temple drums and trumpets will be out in force as the Blasters look to go one better than the inaugural season in 2014, when Atletico beat them with a goal deep in stoppage time.
That the Blasters are even in the summit clash is testament to the big-match temperament of Steve Coppell’s players. Over the 14-match season, they were the lowest scorers, along with sixth-placed Pune City, with 13 goals. But by winning six and drawing four, they finished second in the table, just a point behind Mumbai City.
Atletico, who took the fourth and last qualifying spot, were the draw specialists, with eight such results in the league phase. But one of their four wins came in Kochi, with Javi Lara, once of Valencia B, scoring the only goal of the game.
Atletico overcame Mumbai in the semi-finals, hanging on for 0-0 in the away leg after having won 3-2 at home. Kerala’s path was even tougher. Having taken a 1-0 lead in the Kochi leg, they had a man advantage for more than an hour against Delhi Dynamos. When Milan Singh was sent off, the game was tied at 1-1, but the Dynamos – who scored twice as many goals as Kerala (27) – more than held their own, scoring another to take the game into extra time.
The Blasters finally prevailed 3-0 on penalties, setting up an intriguing reunion with two of their former players. Iain Hume, the Edinburgh-born Canada international, and Stephen Pearson – who played for Motherwell and Celtic – were central to Kerala’s run to the final in 2014. Both now wear Kolkata colours, with Hume’s two goals inspiring the victory over Mumbai.
Off the field, a once-legendary partnership will be in focus. As a partnership, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly added 12,400 runs in international cricket, with 38 century stands. Ganguly, who has made a foray into cricket administration, is also one of Atletico’s owners, while Tendulkar’s gaze is on the Blasters. At a venue where he once took two five-wicket hauls and where they still chant ‘Sa-chin, Sa-chin’ with the old fervour, it night just be Tendulkar and the Blasters celebrating at the final whistle.
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