Match 11, 2022, PJN Stadium, Goa. Jamshedpur FC and Kerala Blasters FC are on a collision course in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL). The sides have distinguished themselves in the league phase and are just a couple of tidy games away from reaching the final of the 2021-22 edition. Fair to say then that the stakes are at its crest.

There are a galaxy of stars on display too. While the Men of Steel boast the likes of Daniel Chukwu, Greg Stewart, Peter Hartley and Seiminlen Doungel, Kerala Blasters FC can call upon Adrian Luna, Alvaro Vazquez, Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Sahal Abdul Samad.

Both have relatively identical defensive records too. Both have kept seven clean sheets during the group stage and have largely kept opposition attackers at bay. Up front, Jamshedpur FC have been slightly more clinical but Kerala Blasters FC have also mustered a goal-tally that shouldn’t be scoffed at.

Moreover, both teams have showcased immense tactical flexibility and have developed a knack of unfurling the right strategy at the right juncture. Thus, there is a sense of unpredictability around the contest. Both know what the other is capable of. Yet, neither really knows what ace the other has up his sleeve.

When the encounter begins, it does so on expected lines. Jamshedpur FC, like they have done countless times this season, dominate the early exchanges and hope to barge through the Tuskers’ defensive door. They fashion a couple of chances too but fail to make them count.

Most teams this season have wilted when Jamshedpur FC have put them to the sword. To the Men of Steel’s credit, there haven’t been many games where they haven’t subjected the opposition to a sustained spell of pressure.

This time, though, they face a slightly more stubborn foe – a foe who doesn’t just stand tall in the face of adversity but calmly waits for its moment, confident that when it will arrive, it will be pounced upon.

Read: This has been one of the best seasons for me in every way: Kerala Blasters FC’s Sahal Samad

As the minutes tick by, Kerala Blasters FC establish some sort of foothold. They aren’t creating as many shooting opportunities as the Men of Steel but are doing enough to keep themselves in the game. And then, all of a sudden, magic happens.

Vazquez picks up the ball near the centre-circle, has a quick glance over his shoulder and floats the ball tantalizingly beyond Jamshedpur FC’s defensive line.

Sahal, who has enjoyed a stellar season, dovetails his run perfectly and anxiously waits for the ball to drop. Ricky Lallawmawma tries to prevent a goalscoring opportunity but Kerala Blasters FC’s speed of thought and slick execution renders his attempt moot.

Sahal then ventures closer to the box, spots the onrushing goalkeeper and cleverly loops the ball over his head. At first, those watching the game term it a goal that has been scored only because Jamshedpur FC uncharacteristically left spaces behind.

On closer introspection, though, it becomes clear that Kerala Blasters FC were playing for this exact opening. And, for the rest of the game, they indeed prove that this was what they had in mind, and this was what they ultimately executed.

Throughout the season, Eli Sabia and Hartley have been rocks at the back for Jamshedpur FC. On Friday, however, they were pulled out of position multiple times owing to the Tuskers’ movement. At times, Pereyra Diaz dropped deeper, with Vazquez occupying at least one of the central defenders. On other occasions, both the strikers exchanged their roles.

They were also content to let Hartley and Eli Sabia win the first ball. What they didn’t allow, though, was them to win those headers unchallenged. By virtue of being there, the Men of Steel couldn’t clear the ball with any conviction and couldn’t find any of their teammates – a ploy that led to the ball dropping at Vazquez’s feet, with the Spaniard then setting up Sahal.

Match Report: Sahal Abdul Samad gives Kerala Blasters FC the advantage in finely-poised semi-final

Kerala Blasters FC were also swifter to most second balls. They ended up with only 48% possession but ensured that when they had the ball, they capitalised. Their entire repertoire of passing wasn’t on show either. Yet, they seemed to almost always make the right decision, and more importantly, seemed a split-second quicker than their opponents.

Apart from that, Kerala Blasters FC ensured that Jamshedpur FC weren’t allowed any space to attack through the middle. Stewart, who has often been the Men of Steel’s guardian angel, didn’t have a single touch inside the opposition box. Before the 1st leg, that had never happened but the Tuskers managed to pull it off, just when they needed it most.

Jamshedpur FC, owing to a lack of time and space in the middle channels, had to shunt the ball out wide. It is quite revealing that their full backs PC Laldinpuia (74 touches) and Ricky (60 touches) had more touches than any other JFC player. For context, Ritwik Das – one of their breakout stars, touched the ball only 36 times.

Hence, this was probably as perfect a defensive display as Kerala Blasters FC have produced this campaign. Their defensive line, marshalled by Harmanjot Khabra, Marko Leskovic and Ruivah Hormipam ensured that the clean sheet was maintained. But this shutout wasn’t just about their defenders. Instead, it was the hard yards the entire team put in, irrespective of where they found themselves on the pitch.

All is not lost for Jamshedpur FC, though. They have an attacking unit capable of tearing open this tie in a few days’ time. In fact, things could have been a lot different had they taken their chances early in the game. That, however, is a discussion for another day.

Friday and the first leg of the first semi-final belonged to Kerala Blasters FC. And, in a contest where almost everyone was capable of bouts of brilliance, they did the simple things well, and most tellingly, did it a tad bit quicker.