'Credit where it is due' - Kerala Blasters are the only ISL side to top I-League 2nd division group
From Indian Super League teams' perspective, the second-division league came to a conclusion on Sunday with the final round of group stage games.
The reserve sides of ISL teams were out of contention for the final round right from the start and only the experience and performances mattered for them.
Kerala Blasters were one of the seven ISL teams to send their reserve teams for participation and the Yellow Army finished the campaign as the best ISL team in the league.
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With 21 points from 10 games, Blasters topped Group B that also had FC Goa's reserve side in it. While FC Goa did the double on Kerala Blasters in the 2017-18 season of ISL, the reserve side reversed the outcome in second-division.
Goa were beaten 0-2 at the Benaulim Ground and succumbed to a 1-2 loss in Kochi. Blasters continued to register wins at crucial intervals and a 1-0 win against table-toppers Ozone FC in Bengaluru on the final matchday placed them at the top of Group B. Fellow ISL side FC Goa finished fifth in Group B with nine points.
Pune City and Delhi Dynamos were outperformed by Real Kashmir and Hindustan FC in Group A. ISL defending champions Chennaiyin FC managed just two wins in ten games and finished bottom of Group C, just below Jamshedpur FC. Bengaluru FC put up a brave fight until the final few rounds and finished second in the group, six points behind leaders TRAU FC.
Blasters' second-division campaign, that kicked off with a 1-4 defeat at the hands of Ozone FC in March, was not without criticism. Renjith TA, who is the head coach of the U-18s, took charge of the reserve squad when the second-division began but technical director Thangboi Singto's inputs have been crucial as well.
Fans were initially unhappy about the involvement of North-East players in the squad but that soon changed.
In fact, 10 Kerala-born players featured in the starting lineup for their opening game against Ozone FC. The numbers varied as the season progressed but not all sections of supporters can be pleased.
Blasters 'B' struck a good balance between the local talent and others available. And Kerala-born midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad has benefitted the most. The 21-year-old, who twice made it to the senior team in the 2017-18 ISL under David James, ended up as the club top-scorer with seven goals to his name.
Sahal, alongside Shillong Lajong product Shaiborlang Kharpan, has scored goals for fun since the conclusion of ISL season in March and is set to play a bigger role in the first team next season. The attack has produced 25 goals in the competition which is only one less than the highest scorers TRAU FC.
After a disappointing end to the ISL season, the second-division campaign will surely give supporters some much-needed hope for the future.