A valiant display by 10-man Delhi Dynamos FC proved to be just short of the mark, as the only Hero Indian Super League club representing the North of India lost via penalties in the 2nd leg of the semi-final to Kerala Blasters FC.
The second leg saw the Dynamos host the red-hot Blasters to decide which team gets to challenge Atlético de Kolkata in the Finals of the 2016 edition of the Hero Indian Super League. The Lions had lost the first leg by a slender 0-1 margin in Kochi three days back and were looking to their home support to overcome the narrow deficit.
The game started relatively slower than the other Delhi Dynamos games have, with both team trying to feel each other in the initial phase. But then, as most matches involving the Lions have done in this 3rd Hero ISL season, the game exploded in to action in the 21st minute when league-leading scorer, Marcelo Leite Pereira aka Marcelinho, coolly put the Lions ahead after a mix-up at the back of their opponents defense.
The goal raised the tempo of play as well as the involvement-level of the home fans by a few notches. Just a couple of minutes after losing the lead, the Blasters equalized with a well-taken strike by Duckens Nazon which silenced the home crowd. And then the 28th minute proved ill-fated for the Lions, as a tackle by Milan Singh on Mehtab Hossain saw him sent off and the Lions were reduced to 10 men and a mountain to climb out of if they wished to make it to the Finals. Although the scoreline read 1-1 at that stage, the Dynamos were 2-1 down on aggregate.
Deep in to stoppage time in the first half, the Lions rediscovered Rubén Rocha, the mainstay of their rock-solid defense. This time Rocha was able to get up to a free kick lofted in to the Blasters penalty area and guided the ball in to the net to put the Lions back in the lead for the match and on level terms for the contest.
The second half played out with chances falling to both sides. Not only were the Blasters not able to make their extra man advantage pay off, they had to thank Sandesh Jhingan for many last-ditch tackles including a goal-line clearance off Florent Malouda in the 78th minute.
While the scheduled 90 minutes saw Delhi Dynamos on top by a 2-1 margin, the aggregate stood at 2-2 and the game headed into extra time.
The extra time saw the Lions remarkably on the attack while still down a player. They were led by their ageless captain and talisman Malouda and tireless midfield general Marcos Tébar who seemed to be controlling the game with ease. However the Lions were unable to capitalize and score, and the match had to be decided via the lottery of penalty kicks.
Unfortunately for the Lions it seemed like playing a man down for more than 90 mins took a toll on their penalty takers. None of the first three were able to convert as Malouda, Bruno Pelissari and Memo all missed their spot kicks. Although the Blasters missed one of their own, they were able to capitalize on the errors and win the penalty kicks, and the contest, for a place in the Finals against inaugural champions Atlético de Kolkata on December 18 at their home ground in Kochi.
Talking about the game at the post-match press conference, Delhi Dynamos Head Coach Gianluca Zambrotta said, “I am very proud of my team, my staff and my players. We have played an amazing match today. It wasn’t easy to play with 10 people.”
The coach had decided to substitute their top sharpshooter Marcelinho at the fag end of the match. Explaining his decision, Zambrotta said, “Marcelinho was injured so I had to substitute him with Bruno Pelissari, who is also a penalty specialist for the team.”
Summing up his campaign with Delhi Dynamos for the season, he added, “I am totally satisfied when I analyse the performances during the season – we had the best score in terms of goals, and never lost at home. I am very proud of this. The first thing I told the players after we lost today’s match was ‘thank you’ because we’ve had a very good season and I am very proud of all the players.”
For the Delhi Dynamos fans, they can be really proud of what their team has achieved in this season of the Hero Indian Super League. They have looked by far the most potent attacking unit, combining in the attacking third with elan. They end the campaign sitting on the top of the pile in terms of goals scored with 29 goals and except for this game have been unbeaten at home. Marcelinho is currently the leading goal scorer with 10 strikes to his credit. Even today the entire squad displayed amazing tenacity and never-say-die attitude, playing with 10-men for more than 90 minutes and looked the better team despite the handicap for large parts of the match.