Kerala Blasters rode on a strike from Kervens Belfort to defeat Delhi Dynamos 1-0 in the first leg of their Indian Super League semi-final on Sunday.
Belfort scored the winner in the 65th minute as Kerala registered their sixth consecutive win at their home ground.
The Haiti international picked up the ball in the Kerala half, made a long run into the opponent penalty box and dribbled past a defender before unleashing a shot which took a lucky deflection off Delhi defender Anas Edathodika and went in at the near post.
Kerala will thus take a slender but important advantage into the second leg to be played at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi on Wednesday.
Kerala were on a five-match winning streak at their home ground before this match and they seemed to be in good shape for this encounter.
With Mehtab Hossain returning from suspension and Josu Prieto also back in the starting XI, Kerala were at their best.
Delhi Dynamos too looked good at start with all players being available and they almost silenced the huge crowd in the first minute itself.
A long hopeful ball from midfield saw Delhi’s Florent Malouda take aim but a clearance saw the ball fall for Kean Lewis. Before the Delhi Dynamos winger could try his luck, Kerala defender Cedric Hengbart deflected the ball away for a corner.
A minute later, it was Kerala’s turn to give Delhi a scare. From a counter attack, Belfort ran the length of the pitch and set it up for an unmarked C.K. Vineeth.
There was Duckens Nazon to his left but the in-form India striker chose to go for goal and instead ended up hitting the side netting from close range.
Delhi took time to show their attacking strength and top scorer Marcelinho Pereira went close in the 35th minute. The Brazilian did well to push his way past Mehtab Hossain and Didier Kadio, but Kerala goalkeeper Sandip Nandy proved equal to the challenge.
Kerala thought they had scored their opening goal and the stadium erupted in joy just before half time when an attempted back pass by Delhi’s Marcos Tébar saw Belfort intercept the ball and put it into the net.
But that celebration proved to be premature as the assistant referee ruled that Belfort had handled the ball while attempting to receive it.
But Belfort was not to be denied in the second session.
The 24-year-old striker picked up a pass from Cédric Hengbart near the centre line, ran quite a distance with the ball, sidestepped defender Ruben Gonzalez Rocha and unleashed a shot with only Delhi goalkeeper Antonio Doblas to beat.
The attempt was not powerful enough but a deflection from the sliding Anas Edathodika was enough to catch Doblas on the wrong foot and the ball went in at the near post.
Delhi’s response was strong with Malouda testing the rival goalkeeper and 10 minutes later, Kerala survived their biggest scare.
A corner kick from Malouda saw the Kerala Defence head it out but the ball came back for Tebar who lobbed it into the six-yard box where Marcelinho headed it dangerously towards goal but Hengbart proved to be Kerala’s saviour by heading it off the line.
The match was marred by violent scenes towards the the fag end when the referee denied Delhi what seemed to be a very strong case for a penalty.
Kerala’s star defender Sandesh Jhingan brought down Marcelinho inside the hosts’ penalty box during second half injury time. But the referee did not find anything wrong with the challenge and showed a yellow card to Delhi’s Richard Gadze for protesting.
That incident coupled with an off the ball foul on Marcelo Pereira by Kerala’s Didier Boris Kadio saw emotions boil over in the Delhi camp and the two sets of players indulged in a physical confrontation at the final whistle.