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ISL 2016 Grand Finale Preview: wit, grit and fate -- it's all on the line tonight at Kochi

THAT MOMENT HAS BEEN burned into the iris of every Kerala Blasters fan.

A corner kick coming in from the right hand side of the defending team. A low-flying one. Met by a semi dolphin leap from the least likely of Atletico de Kolkata players - Mohammed Rafique. And suddenly, all the work that the Blasters had put in throughout the campaign, and the prolonged period of control they had excercised on the final, went to dust. ATK had sneaked in a goal at the last moment, and that was enough. They were the inaugural ISL champions.

2 years later, the two teams are face to face again. They have gone through significant changes during that time. Both have changed managers. Rafique, ATK's hero of the 2014 final, is now in the Blasters camp. And Iain Hume, upon whom Kerala were resting their hopes in 2014, is with ATK. 

But the occasion is the same. The passion is the same. The stakes are just as high as that night. The only difference is that, this time the venue is Kochi, KBFC's very own home. 

Since that fateful night of 20th December 2014, ATK and KBFC have met 4 times. Here, the advantage has clearly been with ATK. They have won 3 of the matches, while the other one - the latest encounter, in fact - ended in a 1-1 draw. 

But history only means so much on an occasion like this. Kerala Blasters are on a high after pulling off a major turnaround after a poor start in the season, and overcoming Delhi Dynamos in a thrilling semi-final encounter that dragged into penalties. If they bring the spirit that allowed them to control an attack like the Dynamos, coupled with the support of a rowdy sold-out home crowd, it may give them a push tonight that few opponents can withstand.

Yet coach Steve Coppell is right to be measured in his approach to the final. Because if ATK have proven anything this season, it's that they can be master controllers of any given game. And nothing demonstrated it like their semi-finals against Mumbai City.

Playing the table toppers who had a demonstrably better attack, Molina set ATK on a full-throttle attacking mode on the first half of the first semi-final. Luck was with them; they got an early goal, then conceded two, equalized through a good goal from Hume and even got a penalty goal to end that half with. Up 3-2, they immediately changed gears and contained the second half to a goalless contest to register a win in the first leg. And then, in the second leg, Molina pulled off a major surprise; by making 9 changes to the team, resting all his major attackers, fielding a side that was undoubtedly geared towards full-on defence. And what's more, they pulled it off. It was a 0-0 game, and they made it through to the final, outwitting perhaps the best team in the tournament.

That was an eye-opener. It put on display the full extent of the bench strength that ATK have, and what can be done with it. The only other team that had comparable bench strength was Delhi Dynamos, but they aren't in contention any more. The other big aspect that came out was that how Molina could channel his team into different playing styles that could be so tremendously different from each other. In a short tournament like ISL, that's a remarkable level of mastery over the squad for any coach. 

So Kerala Blasters, despite having remarkable success in beating Delhi, are now left with a quandry. Which ATK will they have to face in the final? Will they come out swinging first and try to get a goal or will they play their other game and try to hold KBFC down, before switching to a more offensive stance later? It won't be clear until the team list comes out, but there's a good chance it will be the former. ATK's main strikers like Hume, Postiga were all rested in the second leg, and they will definitely come out with an insatiable hunger when the ball is set rolling tonight.

So what can KBFC do to hold them back? One department they are clearly trailing from ATK is that they don't score as many goals as their opponents do. An attack comprising of Hume, Postiga, Doutie, Pearson and Javi Lara (even when Belencoso is not around) is threatening; and that's counting a couple of substitutions to keep up the intensity. And they have the likes of Abinash Ruidas and Lalrindika Ralte backing them up. Compared to this lot, an attack led by Vineeth, Rafi, Belfort and Nazon while still a good one, does not come close in terms of lethality.

So where can KBFC fight ATK? It's perhaps the defence. That's what has mostly allowed them to control the games and turn difficult matches to their favour. Hengbart, Hughes, Sandesh, Rino Anto, Pratik Cowdhary... that's a good deal of talent they have available. And they have defensive medios like Mehtam Hossain and Mahamat backing them up as well. And in goal, the experience of Sandip (or maybe Stack).

The rear of the team is the reason Delhi couldn't score in the first leg of the semis. And you can pin-point to a particular moment in the second leg - when Sandesh Jhingan pulled off a goal-line clearance - that ensured that KBFC didn't lose the game 3-1 and fell out of the race before it could get to extra time. 

So no matter how you look at it, it seems like the final will primarily be a contest between ATK's attack and KBFC's defence. It seems quite appropriate considering that the 2014 finale was a contest between the ATK defnece and the KBFC attack. 

In the end, ATK were lucky to sneak through with a victory in that game. And ironically, that's going to be their biggest fear tonight... a one goal sneak-through win for KBFC. No matter how dependable their attackers are, the likes of Tiri, Robert, Arnab and Pritam will have to be on their toes tonight, as long as the game goes on. Because Vineeth is known for his ability to finish from difficult, unlikely chances.

So it's going to be a contest that will test the wit and grit of every player on the pitch to its very edge. But that's exactly what you want from a grand finale. In the end, it may lead both coaches to play a conservative game with less goals than one would expect, but it will be a hard-fought contest, and delight those who revel in the nervous competitiveness of a cerebral game of football where both sets of players put everything on the line just to get their hands on the coveted silverware.

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