NEW DELHI: The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was only half-full. But the noise was tremendous, as the home fans got behind their 10-man team, drowning out a smattering of visiting fans. On the field, it was frantic stuff. With everything to play for to ensure a place in the final, players put their bodies on the line, chased every loose ball, slid in for tackles and went for glory in the attacking third. It was becoming more about keeping their wits than providing that moment of magic.
At the end of it, the second-leg playoff saw the fortunes of two men turned around in the lottery of penalties. Delhi Dynamos marquee Florent Malouda lifted his side to a 2-1 win on the day but blew his spot kick way over when it mattered the most. In a matter of seconds, he was down from hero to villain, as his was the first kick. At the other end, Kerala Blasters keeper Sandip Nandy redeemed himself in the tie-breaker with a brilliant save, after having looked shaky in normal time. The shootout, after the teams had been locked 2-2 on aggregate, went 3-0 to Kerala.
The Blasters were definitely the more relieved of the two sides to see the playoff going into extra time, as Malouda and Marcelinho repeatedly tore open the left side of their defence in the final quarter of regulation time. If not for a goal line clearance by Sandesh Jhingan off a header from Malouda in the 78th minute, it would have been all over for the Kochi side. It was as if the two-man strike force was more than enough. While Aaron Hughes, Cedric Hengbart and Jhingan did their bit, what hurt the visitors was the defensive midfield duo of Azrack Mahamat and Mehtab Hussain losing track of the Delhi pair’s clever movement.
And it was on one such occasion that the Brazilian picked up a stray ball on the edge of the box and curled in the opener after Didier Kadio turned back a long ball. The Kerala keeper was shaky all through the night on aerial balls, apart from messing up his distribution.
Steve Coppell threw in a surprise to start things off, slotting Josu Prieto — who the coach had refused to dislodge from left back all season – into the left of midfield. Kadio kept his place at left back, where he had done a decent job of bottling up Marcelinho in the first leg. And Josu provided that silky touch that sent Duckens Nazon on his way to run at the Dynamos defence and pull his team level with a sumptuous strike.
After Milan Singh was shown a straight red for stamping his studs on Hossain, coach Gianluca Zambrotta closed down his midfield with an additional man and pushed Malouda up to partner Marcelinho. Sachin Tendulkar’s team takes on Sourav Ganguly’s Atletico de Kolkata in the final.