Mark Sifneos struck in the second-half (73') to give David James a point on his return to the helm of Kerala Blasters' against a spirited FC Pune City at Kochi on Thursday after Marcelinho had struck in the 33rd minute to give the visitors the lead.
David James' return to Kochi coincided with Dimitar Berbatov's first start since the game against FC Goa. Rino Anto accompanied the former Manchester United striker back into the starting lineup after both players regained full match fitness. Subhashish Roy Chowdhury and Iain Hume kept their place in the starting lineup after the defeat against Bengaluru FC on New Year's Eve that eventually resulted in the sacking of Rene Meulensteen.
Pune City named an unchanged lineup from their 5-0 demolition of NorthEast United. Malappuram-born Ashique Kuruniyan continued his impressive run of form for the first team as he started on the wings again. Attacking lynchpin Marcelinho and striker Emiliano Alfaro combined up front for the visitors.
The visitors had the chance to draw first blood early in the game when a Marcelinho free-kick was flicked by Adil Khan across goal and into the path of Rafael Lopez who failed to connect from five yards out.
Malayali Ashique earned cheers from the crowd when his name was announced before the match. The young winger showed Courage Pekuson a clean pair of heels on the right flank before feeding Emiliano Alfaro inside the box. The No.9 failed to strike the ball cleanly but still packed enough punch on his shot to force Subhashish into a good low save onto his left.
Kerala's early dominance on the ball was restricted to passes back and forth in midfield with visitors hitting the home side on the break multiple times. Most of these breakaways resulted in corners for Pune with Popovic's men earning five of them within the first 20 minutes of the game. Jonatan Lucca's shot was fumbled by Roy Chowdhury on one such breakaway but the goalie got his feet to the ball before Marcelinho could tap in the rebound.
Pune's efforts finally paid off in the 33rd minute and it was the combination of Marcelinho and Keralite Ashique that unlocked the Blasters defence. The pair executed a neat one-two at the edge of the box and Ashique's return was gracefully stroked into the net by the Brazilian No.10.
Iain Hume's header at the stroke of half-time was cleared by Sarthak Golui using his chest, thus ending the first half without a single shot on target for Blasters.
Dimitar Berbatov failed to influence proceedings in the first half and was replaced by new signing Keziron Kizito at half-time. The Uganda-born midfielder slotted into midfield and enabled his team to switch gears after the restart.
A stop-start period in the second half frustrated the crowd but their wait for an equaliser ended in the 73rd minute of the game.
Substitute Keziron Kizito split the Pune defence with an inch-perfect through ball for Courage Pekuson. The Ghanian crossed into the box and 21-year-old Mark Sifneos hit the net to register his third goal of the season.
Iain Hume's free-kick effort that went straight to Vishal Kaith and Pekuson's dribble and shot in the final few minutes of the game had Pune City rattled but the visitors hung on till the end to hold Kerala Blasters to yet another draw at home.