Before the match, it was all about Ivan Vukomanovic.
Returning from a 10-match suspension given for the outrageous decision to walk off mid-match on that contentious night in Bengaluru, Vukomanovic had been front and centre as Kochi prepared to host Kerala Blasters vs Odisha FC. The papers, the radio waves, social media: everywhere you looked in Kerala-verse, it was Vukomanovic. The Blasters put out a promo video, Vukomanovic acting out the role of the Tamil superstar Rajnikanth as they recreated the teaser for Rajni's latest movie, Jailer. It was an incredible sight: a football coach hyped up more than any single footballer has been in the league, his return from suspension celebrated with gay abandon. A packed-to-the-rafters Kochi stadium always reserves its loudest cheers for their coach, their aashan, when he walks out, but Friday was a whole different level. A black tie to go with his usual white shirt and dark jeans combo, he walked out to a stadium that was testing the tensile strength of its giant concrete pillars like they'd rarely been tested before.
It was in this fever pitch state that the match started, but the first half showed signs that the Nehru stadium might be in for an anti-climax. You see, for all the Blasters' hard running, Odisha FC, coming off a stellar showing in the AFC Cup mid-week, started the better side. Diego Mauricio gave them the lead with a lovely toe-poke finish that came at the end of a chance created by his own muscular strength and spatial awareness. Naocha Singh was lucky to only see yellow after trying to punch the ball away with his fist in his own box, and then was luckier to see his goalkeeper, Sachin Suresh, pull off a superb double save off the penalty -- keeping both Mauricio and Isak Vanlalruatfela's effort off the rebound out.
For Blasters, old frailties were coming to life. Their midfield was toyed around with by Ahmed Jahouh. Their forwards missed multiple chances, KP Rahul seeing one effort blocked on the line by a desperate Jerry Lalrinzuala slide-block. They were running and running, but Odisha were the ones walking away with the points.
Then the second half came along, and the Adrian Luna show started.
Odisha's Jahouh-led insistence on nonchalant passing out of the back and the Blasters' Luna-led insistence on closing down everything and everyone was making for great viewing for the neutral, but the crowd needed something. It got that when Luna was fouled on the left wing in the 66th minute. If it was a quick freekick that saw Vukomanovic sit out ten games (and the club cough up crores in fines), it was a quick freekick that gave Vukomanovic his first goal on return -- Luna jumping up immediately, putting the ball down and playing it to the feet of Daisuke Sakai who found Dimi Diamantokos, the fresh-off-the-bench striker finishing with a lovely little dink.
By now Blasters had been swarming all over Odisha and a combination of their intensity and Odisha's mid-week commitments was starting to show. Luna was everywhere: right wing, left wing, up top, deep in central midfield... arguably the most skilled player on the pitch was inarguably the hardest working player on it too.
And then those two qualities came together in the most spectacular fashion. A long ball was hoicked forward in his general direction in the 84th minute, and even though it looked like Jerry would comfortably trap it, Luna kept up the chase. Jerry miscontrolled and Luna was right there, snapping at his heels, dispossessing him... and then spying Amrinder Singh off his line, chipping him with a touch of audacious imagination.
This was Luna-town, and he was going to make sure the Blasters had these three points that have now taken them to joint top of the league. This was the same Luna who had, in the absence of his head coach off the field and a clear tactical plan on it, scored the winner against Bengaluru FC in the revenge-match opener, scored the only goal in the win against Jamshedpur, made the assist as they drew NorthEast United 1-1. You see, the Adrian Luna show doesn't take days off, but on some occasions, he takes it up to a level this league has rarely seen before.
After the match, Vukomanovic leant into the narrative around him, saying he didn't regret walking off. "Whenever there is injustice towards your family, your loved ones or in this case, the team you have to protect, that was my reaction. It was not nice to be away for 10 games, but it is part of the job, part of life," he said. But, in the immediate aftermath of the win, it didn't seem to matter as much. The game may have started with Vukomanovic dominating the headlines, but by sheer dint of sweat and genius, Luna had made it all his own by the end of it.