For the entirety of the first half and the start of the second on Friday night, Kerala Blasters seemed to be in cruise control against NEROCA FC. They were 2-0 up inside 50 minutes but imploded spectacularly and lost the tie 2-3 to bring their season to a dismal end.
The team from the North-East were out of sorts in the first half with Courage Pekuson and Victor Pulga finding it easy to dominate proceedings in midfield. It seemed as if the gulf between an Indian Super League (ISL) side and an I-League team was apparent for the first time in the tournament.
However, the second half of the match would erase the disparity.
An early penalty from Pulga put Kerala into the lead, following calamitous defending from Gouramangi Singh. First, he gave away the ball with a poor clearance and then handled Milan Singh's cross, leaving the referee with no choice but to point to the spot.
Prasanth then hit the post while NEROCA had no joy in attack. They were not given space in the attacking third, with the Blasters looking very well organised at the back. It looked as though it would be a comfortable night for the Sachin Tendulkar co-owned outfit when Prasanth Karuthadathkuni finished off an excellent move which was orchestrated by Courage Pekuson and Pulga at the start of the second half.
However, the tables would turn, spectacularly so. And Kerala had only themselves to blame. They had further chances to extend their lead but could not do so while Sandesh Jhingan's injury at the end of the first half also was a huge factor, with the defence losing the leader.
Rino Anto, who came in for Jhingan, had a horrible second-half as the Kerala defence capitulated. Neither Arata Izumi nor Lalruatthara were alert to Joachim's presence beside them as Subash chipped a cross in. The former Chennai City striker did not need another invitation to slot home.
The second goal, ten minutes later, came as a result of lackadaisical defending from the Kerala players who crumbled once NEROCA started applying pressure. Rino Anto's positioning was questionable as he was not even inside the box to pick up Aryn Williams as Pritam Singh crossed into the area from the right wing.
The third goal, two minutes later, would come as a shocker for Kerala but the fact is that it stemmed from a poor pass forward by Lalruatthara, giving the ball away. Wes Brown might have been unlucky to see the ball bounce off Joachim and hit his arm but once it did, there was always a decision to be made for the referee.
The season has been a topsy-turvy one for Kerala Blasters and it came to an end pretty much in the same note. Their defence went for a toss when pressure was put on them, especially in the absence of Jhingan.
Rino Anto was a poor replacement for Jhingan and the Kerala player's struggles this season continued. His positioning was way off and defensively he was a liability last night.
Kerala Blasters, who have invested a huge amount of money in their squad, could not deal with a team put together on a shoe-string budget.
Gift Raikhan, who claimed before the match that the I-League was bigger than the ISL, has just been provided more fodder for his thoughts while David James has a lot to ponder over before he starts preparing for the new season. A lot!