Haitian international Kervens Belfort scored the match-winner through a solo effort to help Kerala Blasters beat Delhi Dynamos by a solitary goal in their first leg semi-finals of the Indian Super League in Kochi on Sunday.
Played in front of a massive nearly 50,000 crowd, Kerala continued with their impressive home run as they registered their sixth consecutive win, thanks to a 65th minute strike from Belfort at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
The Sachin Tendulkar co-owned side will take a slender but important advantage in their second leg semifinal to be played in New Delhi on December 14 for a place in the summit clash.
Kerala were on a five-match winning streak at their home ground before this match and they seemed to be in good shape for the first leg semi-final encounter. With Mehtab Hossain returning from suspension and Josu Prieto also back, Kerala were at their best.
Delhi Dynamos too looked good at the start with all players being available and they almost silenced the huge crowd in the first minute itself.
A long ball from the midfield saw Florent Malouda take aim but a clearance saw the ball fall for Kean Lewis. Before the Delhi winger could try his luck, defender Cedric Hengbart stood in his way and 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 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 the 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 goalkeeper Sandip Nandy proved equal to the challenge.
Kerala thought they had scored their opening goal and the stadium erupted in joy when Belfort put the ball into the net but that celebration proved premature as the assistant referee ruled that the Haitian striker had handled the ball before scoring in the 45th minute.
In the second session, Belfort and Kerala were not to be denied in the 65th minute when the Haitian striker received a ball in his own half. He ran quite a distance with the ball, sidestepped defender Ruben Gonzalez Rocha and took a chance with only the goalkeeper to beat. The shot was not powerful enough but a deflection from the sliding Anas Edathodika was enough to catch goalkeeper Antonio Doblas on the wrong foot and the ball sailed into the net.
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 Kerala head it out but the ball came back for Marcos Tebar who lobbed it inside the goalmouth where Marcelinho headed it dangerously towards goal but Hengbart proved Kerala's saviour as he headed it off the goal-line.