The last league-phase game of 2016 Indian Super League between Kerala Blasters FC and NorthEast United FC was a do-or-die affair since it held the stakes of semifinal entry for the winner. That honor finally went to Kerala Blasters as they defeated the visitors 1-0 to set up the semifinal clash with Delhi Dynamos. The two teams had contrasting passages through the league-phase. NEUFC began the season high on promise and looked like finishing among top four during first part of the tournament. Later, however, they suffered an inexplicable dip in form and for six matches on trot; they couldn’t register a single win. In Kerala’s case, nearly the reverse was true. They had a flat beginning by losing the first two games and drawing the third before recording their first win against Mumbai City FC on October 14. With the return of India International CK Vineeth, KB saw a turnaround in their fortunes in mid-November. On Sunday at Kochi, it was the same Vineeth, whose individual brilliance saw KB through to the semifinal. With that, semifinal line-up of 2016 ISL fell in place. The teams will have a longish break before they begin the 2-legged semifinals. Mumbai play Kolkata while Kerala take on Delhi during December 10-14. The semifinal winners will arrive in Kochi for the Grand Finale on December 18.
Besides Kerala Blasters on Sunday, NorthEast United FC also faced nearly 54000 fervent home fans at Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium. Despite convincingly beating Delhi Dynamos on November 30, odds didn’t favor NEUFC at Kochi. Kerala’s home performance in recent games had been fabulous and they derived full-throated support from their fans in notching up four straight victories. The bigger stake for both teams was the last semifinal spot in this year’s Indian Super League. The match began with Kerala Blasters earning the first scoring chance in 4th minute, when Duckens Nazon stole the ball from Mailson Alves near NEUFC penalty area. However, Nazon couldn’t pack enough power in his curling shot and NEUFC goalkeeper Rehenesh made a good save. After denying the home side the chance of an early lead, NEUFC found a few chances of their own. In the 18th minute, Seityasen Singh had the ball possession but his left-footer from a distance was easily cleared away. Romaric was next ,but he too had aimed from long-range and KB goalkeeper Graham Stack didn’t face any problems. NEUFC carried the momentum further with Rowllin Borges getting a chance from outside the box but his shot flew too high above the crossbar. NEUFC looked a better side for the first 30 minutes with greater share of ball possession. In 34th minute, they could have gone into the lead, when referee awarded them a free-kick. But Romaric’s free-kick sailed over the crossbar. Just before halftime, Seityasen also couldn’t keep his shot down from just outside the penalty area. The score remained 0-0 at break.
Second half started slowly and first few minutes were wasted by both sides. However, in 58th minute, NEUFC’s Japanese recruit Katsumi Yusa sent a good pass for Emiliano Alfaro, who had a clear sight of the goal. But KB goalkeeper Stack proved quicker than Alfaro in reaching the ball. Alfaro had one more chance a minute later, when he was fed by Seityasen but again, Stack parried it away. While NEUFC’s attempts proved futile, Kerala Blasters had better luck in 66th minute. CK Vineeth collected the ball on the left flank and ran towards the goal. On the way, he passed a couple of defenders before shooting past NEUFC goalkeeper Rehenesh from just outside the box. That goal brought KB fans to their feet and more so, because of Vineeth’s heroics. Blasters could have doubled their lead 2 minutes later, when Kervens Belfort cut through from the right flank but played straight into Rehenesh’s hands. Belfort made another similar attempt in the 72nd minute and this time his powerful volley was tipped over the bar by Rehenesh. KB had some more chances that kept Rehenesh busy. Nine minutes from time, NEUFC earned a corner and although Alves jumped his full height his header went straight to KB goalkeeper. In 84th minute too, the Highlanders came close to finding the equalizer but Alves’ shot hit the woodwork. With 3 minutes left, KB also had a chance to make it 2-0 but Mohammed Rafi’s close-range header was tipped by Rehenesh over the bar. With NorthEast failing to produce any serious threat in dying stages, Kerala Blasters won the game 1-0. That assured their entry into the semifinal. They now play with Delhi for the place in the final.