Playing their first game after the sacking of celebrated coach Rene Meulensteen, Kerala Blasters faced a tough prospect against an incisive Pune City on Thursday night. But many expected them to come up with a statement of intent at home under stand-in coach David James.
The response did come from the Blasters, only 45 minutes later than what was expected. For almost the entire first half, barring an initial period where Kerala showed some intent and spunk in retrieving the ball and launching attacks, FC Pune City were the top dogs in Kochi.
Pune City, with a solid midfield duo in Adil Khan and Marcos Tebar, were quick to assert themselves in Kochi against the home side who started with Iain Hume, Mark Sifneos, Dimitar Berbatov and Wes Brown for the first time.
With Brown dropping back to defence, Berbatov was deployed as the holding midfielder while the tall Sifneos played curiously off Iain Hume, who was tasked with leading the lines. The tactics failed to pay dividends in the first half, with Berbatov rarely getting involved in the build-up play while Marcelinho and co. found time and space in attack aplenty.
The Blasters defence was in shambles early on, with Sandesh Jhingan and Wes Brown appearing not to be on the same wavelength. Pune City should have been up by at least three or four goals by the time the first half ended but only had a well-worked goal from Marcelinho to show for their efforts - something which would ultimately cost them two points.
Rafa Lopez failed to nudge home a loose ball early on from close range after Wes Brown gave away a cheap free-kick. Marcelinho was then denied by a fortunate save by Subhasish Roy Chowdhury, who stuck out a leg to take the ball away after spilling a shot from Jonatan Lucca into the Brazilian's path.
Marcelinho, who was seeing a lot of the ball, forced the Kerala goalkeeper into another save soon after before linking up brilliantly with Ashique Kuruniyan to score the opener. Lalruatthara and Wes Brown were absolutely static during the build-up to the goal, notably. Chowdhury had to be alert a couple more times before the half ended to ensure the scoreline did not go out of hand.
David James, sensing danger, took off the ineffective Berbatov and threw on new signing Kizito Keziron. The 20-year-old Ugandan midfielder made a marked influence on the game immediately with his incisive passing and ball retention, with Kerala looking a far better outfit after his introduction.
More importantly, Siam Hanghal also raised his game in the second half, getting tight on Marcelinho and denying him space to run riot like he did in the first half. In fact, Kerala's equaliser came after Hanghal intercepted a Pune attack before Keziron played a delightful through ball for Courage Pekuson to run on to. The Ghanaian found Sifneos, who was intelligent enough to hold his run into the box to give him some space to slam the cutback in.
The tide had really turned in the second half and Pekuson should really have punished Pune for their profligacy in the first half when he sent a shot agonisingly wide after getting into the penalty box late on.
Though Kerala could not force a winner on the night, there were promising signs for the Men in Yellow in the second half, after a dismal first half where marquee man Berbatov was invisible. David James would probably have to mull over the possibility of dropping the Bulgarian or deploying him further forward in his natural position.
Meanwhile, Pune City have gone top of the standings with the draw but would feel that the game was there for the taking in the first half with the missed chances resulting in them dropping two valuable points.