The Kerala Blasters also lacked a quality central midfielder and Borja and Jewel Raja Sheikh controlled the central midfield.
Atletico Madrid’s role in making Atletico de Kolkata the most successful and consistent club in the Indian Super League is vital. In three editions of the ISL, ATK have emerged champions twice in 2014 and 2016 and ended semi-finalists in 2015. The partnership has blossomed as the Spanish club have given the right direction and guidance to ATK. Unlike other ISL clubs, ATK kept faith in their key players and did not change the composition of the team frequently.
In the 2016 season, ATK retained seven of the 11 overseas players. Their Spanish coach in the first two editions — Antonio Lopez Habas — departed as he was lured by FC Pune City’s lucrative offer. However, Atletico Madrid ensured continuity in coaching and playing style by sending another Spanish coach Jose Molina. Atletico Madrid’s coaching staff also guided ATK in choosing appropriate foreign players. So Atletico Madrid’s network ensured that ATK got better value for money in importing players.
ATK’s skipper, the 35-year-old Borja Fernadez, exemplifies this perfect cohesion between the Spanish and the Kolkata club. Borja, a former Real Madrid player, was persuaded by the sports director of Atletico Madrid to join ATK in 2014. In the inaugural edition he was their most successful player with 63 tackles — the maximum in the ISL. Again he played a vital role in helping them win the 2016 ISL.
Runners-up for the second time, Kerala Blasters enjoyed the maximum crowd support in the entire third season. All their home matches were watched by over 50,000 spectators and their average attendance was way above the next best that of NorthEast United FC in Guwahati. As ATK could not play home matches at the Salt Lake Stadium (getting renovated for the 2017, Under-17 World Cup) their average attendance and that of the unsuccessful FC Goa declined.
Kerala Blasters coach Steve Coppell ensured that his team had a compact defensive unit with Frenchmen Cedric Hengbert and Irishman Aaron Hughes being outstanding.
However in the final, they missed suspended left back Josu Prieto, who used to instigate many attacks from the deep. Coppell blundered by choosing Ishfaq Ahmed, a natural winger as left back. In the twilight of his career, Ishfaq could not adjust to defensive duties and his positioning and marking got exposed by ATK’s South African winger Sameehg Doutie. From the beginning, ATK launched most of their attacks from the right.
The Kerala Blasters also lacked a quality central midfielder and Borja and Jewel Raja Sheikh controlled the central midfield. Despite enjoying home ground advantage, Kerala Blasters failed to click in the final and lost again to their nemesis ATK.
The capacity crowd and atmosphere at the Nehru Stadium in Kochi was exemplary. Tickets were sold a day before the final.
The only jarring note was when ex-international I.M. Vijayan, arguably Kerala’s greatest ever player, was given two ordinary tickets for the final.
He was on the verge of leaving when actor Nivin Pauly took him to the special enclosure. The situation could have been handled more sensitively. The players’ violence at the end of the semi-finals, when favourites Mumbai City FC and Delhi Dynamos got eliminated, was disturbing and should have been dealt with severely as it set a bad example.