A sea of yellow will welcome both Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters FC when the two teams donning similar colours will take the PJN Stadium in Fatorda aspiring to crown their respective seasons with a Indian Super League trophy, in the final here on Sunday. It has been a season to remember for both Hyderabad and Kerala, reaching the summit of the 2021-22 Hero ISL season on the back of some scintillating performances. Hyderabad finished second in the table with 38 points while Kerala were fourth having 34 in their kitty.
On Sunday, both outfits will get an opportunity to showcase their might in front of a packed house with fans allowed back in the stands after a gap of two years.
The tickets were sold in record time with the massive Kerala fanbase thronging Goa in numbers to watch their favourite stars in action. The buzz was no less for Hyderabad who have reached the final for the first time.
“We are very happy to be here. It was a hard season. It was challenging mentally to be in a bio-bubble for five months. Our strength is the group we have, players and staff. We all work towards the same direction,” Hyderabad head coach Manolo Marquez told journalists on the eve of the mega clash.
“We were very close last season (to qualifying for the semifinals), this time we finished second in the table.
It’s only one game and anything can happen tomorrow. We know we have a hard opponent but I am sure they think the same about us as well,” he added. Hyderabad missed the semis bus by a whisker last season under Marquez, finishing fifth.
“It’s fantastic (to play in front of fans). Football is for the fans. It is always good for players and everyone involved to have fans,” said the Spaniard when asked about fans being back in the stands. Seated beside him was skipper Joao Victor. “We prepare all season for this. Every team wants to be in the final. We have to be ready and we are ready,” he said.
In the semifinals, Hyderabad beat ATK Mohun Bagan 3-2 on aggregate over two legs, winning the first game 3-1 to then lose 0-1 in the second match. Kerala, meanwhile, edged past League Shield winners Jamshedpur 2-1 on aggregate, winning the first encounter 1-0 to then hold the Men of Steel to a 1-1 draw.
Like Hyderabad, Bartholomew Ogbeche has had a stellar season too, scoring a record 18 goals in 19 games and sitting pretty at the top of the goalscoring charts in the competition with 53 strikes to his name.
“Having the fans back is amazing. We will try to put out a good show for them,” said the Nigerian ahead of the final. Ogbeche also reserved special praise for the organisers of the Hero ISL, saying it wasn’t easy to maintain two bio-secure bubbles.
“I would like to give a lot of credit to AIFF (All India Football Federation), FSDL, Reliance Foundation for what they did last year. The bubble is something that wasn’t done before and it was a great success last season. It helped to have the experience of a bubble this season, so I feel last season was tougher,” said the 37-year old.
For Kerala, they will probably have the biggest 12th man for the final in the form of their fans who brought the roof down when the yellow army reached their third final beating Jamshedpur. Social media was filled with celebration scenes all around the state and also elsewhere and on Sunday they will make their presence felt at the Fatorda, to put it mildly.
“We came back with strength this season. We are grateful for that. We are so pleased with what we have achieved so far. We hope for the best,” said Kerala head coach Ivan Vukomanovic.
Asked about fans being back in the stands, he added: “We play football for the fans. I think in the last couple of months playing without fans was weird. Now it is extra motivation for all the players. As a boy, you dream of playing in front of your local fans.”
Hyderabad and Kerala have faced each other six times so far in the Hero ISL, each winning thrice with no draws to show for. Adrian Luna is Kerala’s answer to Ogbeche with the Spaniard being a key figure in their journey so far. Although the likes of Alvaro Vazquez, Marko Leskovic and Jorge Diaz have played important parts too, Luna has been simply outstanding for Kerala scoring six goals and being involved in 13 goal contributions, only Ogbeche being more involved than Luna in this regard.