Expectations, reality. You know the meme format, but how do you apply it to the Delhi Capitals' season?

Before IPL 2020 began, a number of experts counted the Capitals among their pre-season favourites. "If this team plays to its full potential," Aakash Chopra wrote on this website, "they have a real chance of winning their first ever IPL title."

"It's the team with the least number of weaknesses, it's the team with options for all conditions," Sanjay Manjrekar said while previewing the Capitals' season-opener, also on this website. "Very exciting personnel that they've got together."

The Capitals finished in the top two on the league table, and they've now reached their maiden final, but the expectations-reality equation hasn't been straightforward. Where the Mumbai Indians never looked in doubt of getting to the final, the Capitals are perhaps lucky to have made it this far, having won only two of their last seven games. But they're in the final, and have history in their sights. How do you begin to make sense of it all?

Shaw and Pant misfire

At the start of the tournament, the Capitals seemed to have one of the best top orders in the competition. Three explosive boundary-hitters in Prithvi Shaw, Rishabh Pant and Shimron Hetmyer, an anchor in Shreyas Iyer, and, in Shikhar Dhawan, an experienced opener who had upped his T20 game, shrugging off a tendency for slow starts and lifting his powerplay strike rate into the 140s in the 2019 season.

If its parts could fit smoothly together, this was a top order capable of inflicting serious damage, as the Capitals showed while posting what remains IPL 2020's biggest total, against the Kolkata Knight Riders in Sharjah.

That game, however, has been the exception rather than the rule, and the Capitals' batting line-up has often had a dysfunctional look to it, thanks largely to two key components misfiring.

Shaw has gone through a horror run at the top - he has a top score of 10 in his last seven innings - and Pant, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, but which perhaps have something to do with not having played any cricket for half the year thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, has been a pale shadow of his usual self in the middle order. Iyer's form hasn't deviated too far from the mean, but with Shaw and Pant dropping well below their best, his inability to force the pace through the middle overs has stood out more starkly than it otherwise would have.

The struggles of Shaw, Pant and Iyer have left the Capitals' line-up looking structurally unsound, and when their in-form players have failed - such as when Dhawan, their top run-getter so far, made three ducks in the space of four innings - the others haven't stepped up to compensate.

Tactical tic-tac-toe

The batting issues have been compounded by a lack of options on the bench. When an injured Pant missed three games in the middle of the season, the Capitals didn't just have to replace him but also Hetmyer, for no fault of his, simply because the only other wicketkeeper in the squad was the Australian Alex Carey.

Ajinkya Rahane has been the Capitals' main back-up batsman, but he's another anchor, and not quite the solution that Shaw's lean run called for. He's also played in the same XI as Shaw on occasion, when the Capitals have left Hetmyer out to play an extra overseas bowler, but that's only compromised their power through the middle and late overs.

Stoinis steps up

The Capitals' batting woes could have potentially cost them a playoffs spot if not for Marcus Stoinis. Their opening game was portentous: they were 86 for 4 in 14 overs when Stoinis walked in, and he walloped 53 off 21 to haul them to a defendable total. And he also bowled the final over to take the game to a Super Over, somehow going dot, wicket, wicket when the Kings XI Punjab needed one off the last three balls.

Since then he's scored two more half-centuries, and bowled at difficult times to help shield the Capitals' fingerspinners from unfavourable match-ups.

And in the second Qualifier against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, the Capitals moved Stoinis up to open alongside Dhawan, using him in the role he's had most of his recent success in, and the move brought them their best powerplay score of the tournament. With Hetmyer also back in the fold and contributing a late cameo, the Capitals' batting seemed at its healthiest in a long time.

How good have the Capitals bowlers been, really?

Best economy rate at the death, second-best economy rate in the powerplay, and the best overall economy rate and average of any bowling team in the tournament.

The above facts were true on October 17, when the Capitals had played nine games and won seven of them.

It's a good time to insert a "stop the count" joke, because the Capitals, since then, have the third-worst economy rates in both the powerplay and the death overs, the worst middle-overs economy rate, and the worst economy rate and second-worst average overall.

It's not like they've undergone massive personnel changes between the two halves of the tournament, so how do you even begin to explain these numbers? Maybe you don't. Maybe it's all about the unreliability of small sample sizes. Maybe it's a case of the Capitals' attack regressing to the mean.

So what now?

To put it simply, the Capitals have been less than the sum of their parts through the season, but look at the parts themselves. If they go into the final with the same line-up that defeated the Sunrisers on Sunday, it'll include Dhawan, Stoinis, Iyer, Pant, Hetmyer, Axar Patel, R Ashwin, Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje. They were quality players before the tournament began, and they remain quality players even if they've ridden a collective rollercoaster of form in between.

In what has possibly been the most tightly contested IPL ever, it's probably all this individual quality that's carried the Capitals into the final. Mumbai, their opponents, are one of the great T20 teams, boasting not just individual quality but also role clarity from No. 1 to No. 11. That sort of role clarity comes from the same core group of players competing together season after season, and winning titles season after season. That role clarity is probably what makes a team stand out in the long run, but it's no guarantee of winning a one-off contest, where individual quality is often enough.

The Capitals are an imperfect team entering the final lap of an imperfect campaign. One good day, and all else will be forgotten.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo