Kerala Blasters FC lived up to the home crowd’s expectations as they edged past NorthEast United FC 1-0 and sealed a place in the semi-finals of Indian Super League at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi on Sunday.
Kerala Blasters needed only a point to qualify for the semi-finals while NorthEast United would have gone through at Kerala’s expense if they had won all points. But Kerala did not disappoint the massive home crowd of over 53,000 present at the stadium with CK Vineeth scoring the all-important goal in the 66th minute.
The win helped Kerala Blasters finish second with 22 points and will now meet third-placed Delhi Dynamos in the two-leg semi-final battle. League toppers Mumbai City FC will face Atletico de Kolkata in the other semi-final.
Both teams started nervously trying to gauge each other’s strengths but it were Kerala Blasters who were in command and could have surged ahead in the third minute. Haitian international Duckens Nazon got the ball down on the left, cut past Mailson Alves and found space inside the box. However, his attempt on goal was palmed away by NorthEast goalkeeper TP Rehenesh.
Apart from that early goal-mouth action, there was not much that either team did to break the deadlock. Most of the chances came from set-pieces but the teams could not get it right. Two free-kicks of Kerala Blasters on top of the box were wasted as Vineeth could not find the desired player and Romaric sent his left-footed attempt wide from a good position for NorthEast.
In the second session, NorthEast United, who needed a win, showed more urgency. Emiliano Alfaro’s effort from just inside the box saw goalkeeper Graham Stack prove equal to the challenge in the 60th minute.
The game got its decisive moment in the 66th minute when Mohammed Rafi switched play and found Vineeth on the left. The winger did well to cut inside, switch the ball to his right foot and take an unexpected grounder which beat the rival goalkeeper.
The goal stunned NorthEast United as they suddenly appeared to lose hope, despite coach Nelo Vingada ringing in the changes. Though Vineeth made it compulsory for NorthEast to score to stay alive, it were Kerala Blasters who seemed more likely to score again.
Kervens Belfort saw his attempt go straight into the hands of goalkeeper Rehenesh two minutes after taking the lead and in the 75th minute, substitute Antonio German brought the best out of Rehenesh who kept his team alive with a diving save.
Rehenesh’s best save of the day came three minutes before the end when he palmed Rafi’s header from point-blank range on to the post. It counted for nothing in the end as Kerala Blasters sailed home and now have the chance to seal their second final appearance in three years.