Hyderabad FC qualified for the semifinals for the first time with a hard-fought 2-1 win over Kerala Blasters FC in a rip-roaring Hero Indian Super League encounter at the Athletic Stadium in Bambolim here on Wednesday.
Bartholomew Ogbeche got Hyderabad in front in the 28th minute with Javier Siverio doubling the margin in the 87th minute to make it 35 points from 18 games and stay firmly in pole position. Kerala fought hard with Alvaro Vazquez at the heart of their second-half stellar show but in the end, Hyderabad held firm with the defence and Laxmikant Kattimani doing the job for Manolo Marquez's side.
Vincy Barretto scored a consolation goal for Kerala in stoppage time but it was too little too by then. The result means Kerala stay in fifth place with 27 points from 17 outings, Mumbai only a point above them at fourth after their 1-0 win over SC East Bengal on Tuesday.
Kerala replaced Jorge Pereyra Diaz, who was serving a one-match ban for his 'violent conduct' in the last game against ATK Mohun Bagan, with Chencho Gyeltshen upfront.
With a lot at stake, both teams approached the game with a safety-first mindset as the defences looked solid, not willing to blink first. It needed a special effort to break the deadlock and Ogbeche -- who else -- provided the spark to unlock the Kerala rearguard with a deft touch and then a powerful finish to take his tally to a whopping 17 goals this season.
Rohit Danu headed in a pin-point cross inside the box for Ogbeche to control the ball, turn sharply and fire a rocket of a shot past the keeper and into the net.
Kerala responded with an attempt that found the crossbar from a Chencho Gyeltshen left-footer after the Bhutan striker was set up by Harmanjot Khabra who flicked on a Adrian Luna corner in his path. At halftime, league leaders Hyderabad led 1-0.
The second half started to some end to end stuff as both teams pressed the accelerator. First Chencho spurned a gilt-edged chance, giving Laxmikant Kattimani enough time to come off his line and close him down despite being one on one with him. Khabra then hit the bar from a corner before Alvaro Vazquez showed his class, getting past two defenders with a cheeky back-flick but shooting straight at the keeper.
At the other end, Prabhsukhan Gill pulled off a brilliant double save, first keeping Rohit Danu at bay to then get up in a flash and deny Ogbeche from close. Kattimani was not far behind in Hyderabad goal, denying Vazquez's volley with a dive to his left. Vazquez ran Hyderabad ragged with his incisive play as he came close to scoring again, sending his attempt just over.
Finally, after a host of missed efforts at both ends, Hyderabad doubled their lead to seal their semi berth as substitute Siverio headed in a Nikhil Poojary cross with Gill only getting a faint hand to it.
Substitute Barreto scored in the 90th minute, sending a rocket of a strike from outside the box into the top corner to give Kerala fans something to cheer for.