BY NISANTH V EASWAR Follow @Niktheblue94 on Twitter
Defending champions ATK held Kerala Blasters to a goalless draw in the opening game of the fourth season of Indian Super League (ISL) at the JLN Stadium in Kochi on Friday. The game was largely contested in midfield, as both sides struggled to convert their chances in front of goal.
Star signing Dimitar Berbatov started upfront for Kerala as the lone striker in a loose 4-2-3-1 formation. Iain Hume, Courage Pekuson and CK Vineeth joined them in attack as Milan Singh shielded the defence which featured Sandesh Jhingan and Nemanja Lakic-Pesic sandwiched between full-backs Rino Anto and Lalruatthara. Manchester United academy graduate Paul Rachubka started in goal.
For defending champions ATK, Finnish striker Njazi Kuqi started upfront with Hitesh Sharma in behind him in a more tight-knit 4-2-3-1 compared to their opponents. Conor Thomas and Eugeneson Lyngdoh were paired together in midfield with Debjit Majumder in goal.
Kerala Blasters, who were playing in front of a sell-out crowd, started the game on the front foot. Milan Singh's shot from outside the box early in the game, after the midfielder ran forward from midfield, had the crowd on their feet but the ball flew wide of the sidebar.
ATK dominated the possession stats in the early minutes of the game and almost made use of it when Hitesh Sharma forced Paul Rachubka into a good low save inside the box.
Courage Pekuson's energy in the attacking third was on show in the 34th minute as he dribbled out of defence and played a well-timed give-and-go with Iain Hume before weaving through the ATK defence, whose resorted to fouling the Ghanian to bring the dangerous attack to an end.
Kerala Blasters were lethargic with the ball and unsure without it. The movement and play of both teams in the attacking third left a lot to be desired as they went down the tunnel at the half-time whistle.
Rene Meulensteen altered the formation in the second half as the home side sought control of the game. Mark Sifneos replaced Iain Hume in attack and the 20-year-old former Walwijk striker slotted in as the frontman, pushing Dimitar Berbatov deeper.
Teddy Sheringham reacted to the change by replacing the ineffective Njazi Kuqi with Indian striker Robin Singh. The changes seemed to open the game up and ATK, who looked better with the ball at their feet, were unlucky not to score in the 70th minute. Jose 'Zequinha' Branco cut in from the left before curling a delicious shot that hit the far post and went out of play.
Dimitar Berbatov, who struggled to make his mark in his ISL debut, had his flick at goal saved by Debjit Majumder as the sides shared spoils at the full-time whistle.
Kerala Blasters welcome Steve Coppell-led Jamshedpur FC up next whereas ATK host FC Pune City.