The best teams always have that one player. The kind that embodies their coach's philosophy on the pitch. Kerala Blasters and Ivan Vukomanovic have Adrian Luna - he of three lungs and a magic wand for a right foot. Now, it's been a while since the Blasters have been one of the best teams in the land, but in 2022, they are.
Yet another Luna wonder goal saw them draw Jamshedpur 1-1 in the second leg of their semifinal, enough for a 2-1 aggregate win. Into the final they go, after six long years.
On the night, though, they faced an onslaught. Greg Stewart and Daniel Chima Chukwu and Ishan Pandita and Ritwik Das and (later) Alex Lima and Jordan Murray running at them, hassling them, smashing into them. Yet, they ran and ran and ran. It's been a long season. They've had COVID-19 rip through their squad. They were up against the league stage winners, a side that has dominated others physically and mentally. But at no stage did the Blasters looked like they were going to crumble.
Puitea, Ayush Adhikari and (later) Jeakson Singh took no prisoners in the midfield. Behind them, Harmanjot Khabra, Ruivah Hormipam, Marko Leskovic and Sandeep Singh stood toe-to-toe with the league's second-most potent attack, and kept them quiet. Nishu Kumar, a defensive stand-in for the injured Sahal Abdul Samad kept the intensity up. In front of them, Alvaro Vazquez and Jorge Pereyra Diaz floated across the front line, disrupting play and causing chaos.
And then there was Luna.
There was much to admire about his goal, of course. The feint that sent Laldinliana scrambling for a coffee. The finish from outside the box that took TP Rehenesh by surprise in its power (there was virtually no backlift) and placement (right in the bottom far corner). But we know of his quality on the ball. The calm, the vision, the brilliance. The abiding images came toward the final quarter of an hour, Jamshedpur throwing everything at it, Luna dead on his feet, dribbling out of danger and into the opposition third again, and again. The best technician on the pitch, and the hardest worker. What option even did his teammates have but follow his lead?
By the end of the match his shirt was a second-skin, drenched. He could barely muster a smile at the end of it all, even as everyone around him erupted. He simply didn't have anything more to give.
It's this combination that makes him the perfect representative of Vukomanovic's philosophy - be relentless, intense off the ball. Express yourself, take risks on it. And no matter what happens, never stop giving it your all. It's basically Vukomanovic saying, if your fans don't stop supporting you, how dare you stop running for them.
So, on Sunday, the 20th, when the ISL opens its doors to the fans for the first time in two years, when Goa turns yellow, the legions of Blasters fans will see a team play their heart out for them. Come what may. Win or lose. Leading that charge will be Adrian Luna.