Kerala and Kolkata experience Groundhog Day

Kerala Blasters 1-1 Atletico de Kolkata (2:23)

Atletico de Kolkata beat Kerala Blasters 4-3 in the penalty shootout of the ISL 2016 final. (2:23)

What if Sandesh Jhingan had reacted a little more quickly in the 44th minute? He would have gotten the better of Henrique Sereno and Kerala Blasters would have had a vital 1-0 lead going into the break. Who knows how the second half might have panned out?

What if Aaron Hughes did not pick up an injury in the first half? Hughes has been outstanding this ISL, and with him in the box, maybe Kolkata attempt a short corner rather than whipping in an outswinger.

Maybe the spaces open up for CK Vineeth and Kervens Belfort to exploit. Maybe Kolkata throw caution to the wind, leaving themselves exposed at the back and allowing Duckens Nazon to score on the break.

Much like in 2014, Kerala will rue another day of ifs and buts, but there is no changing the facts: Kolkata are the champions. And as was the case two years ago, Kolkata were fully deserving of the victory.

Like most -if not all - sports, football does not reward "What ifs" and the "almosts". Kerala were nearly there. Kolkata went all the way and they were simply the better team.

Atletico showed more fluency in attack, dominated possession, created the better chances, and were hardly troubled at the back. Most importantly, when it came down to the decisive moment, Kolkata stayed calm. They converted their penalties, Kerala stuttered and missed theirs.

At the post-match presser, a disappointed Steve Coppell admitted that including Hughes in the XI was a "calculated risk" that had backfired, but he was nevertheless proud of what his team had achieved.

"Hughes had picked up an injury in the semifinal (against Delhi Dynamos), and he only played because I asked him to. You don't want to leave your marquee out for a final, and I'm sure Aaron would not have played on if it was any other game.

"However, it was clear right from the start that he wasn't 100%, as he wasn't moving properly and his passing was off. So I'll have to raise my hand and take the blame for that."

It was another nearly moment for Kerala. While Hughes' replacement Ndoye went on to blast his spot-kick high, Molina kept faith in 26-year-old midfielder Jewel Raja, who netted the title-winning penalty to silence Kochi.

"Before the shootouts began, (Iain) Hume said he wanted to shoot the first and Raja said he would take the last. I said okay. After the final, I had to thank the players for what they did," a jubilant Molina explained.

"Normally when 10 different players say they want to take a penalty, I have to make a decision. But Raja was confident and when he approached me, I was happy to let him have it (the last penalty)."

Molina felt Kolkata would have been fully deserving of their win in normal time itself, and it's hard to disagree with his assessment.

With Borja Fernandez once again stamping his authority on the game and choking Kerala's creative players out of space, Kolkata passed circles around the hosts, only to be let down by poor finishing from Helder Postiga.

The issue of Kerala's fatigue was not lost on Coppell, who once again spoke of his frustrations with the ISL for scheduling the second leg of their semifinal in Delhi, despite Kerala finishing higher in the league.

"We have played three games in seven days and travelled to Delhi when we shouldn't have had to. This is not an excuse because Kolkata won, but we shouldn't have had to go to Delhi.

"Then, we had to leave in five groups and the last group reached the hotel at 8pm and the first group left Delhi at 5am. So we couldn't recover properly.

"I think we need more of a gap between the semis and the final. The heat is really draining on the players, so they need more rest if the final is to be played at the highest level."

Still, tiring Kerala players or not, Molina felt Kolkata still had to go out and win the game, and the fact that they did it in front of a sea of yellow was a testament to the players' fighting spirit.

"Great players don't always make a great team and I don't like that. I like a team where players fight for each other," he said. "We kept some players who knew the league, who knew Kolkata. That was why we retained seven of the 11 foreigners and we created a group that is generous for each other in the league. This is not an ordinary league because it lasts only three-four months, so getting the group right was important."

Molina is now the third title-winning coach in the ISL. His Kolkata are now the most successful team in the tournament's history, with two championships in three years.

Two years ago, Kolkata were given a stern test in the final, but found enough resolve to break Kerala hearts right at the very end.

Kerala were despondent that night, shattered to have fallen at the final hurdle. Who'd have had the heart to tell them then that they would experience that very same night all over again just two years later?