By Ashwin Muralidharan (@AshwinMNair10)
The season four of the Indian Super League (ISL) got off to a glitzy start, albeit a bit over the top, in Kochi on Friday night with Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif in attendance along with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Nita Ambani.
However, the fare on offer after the referee blew his opening whistle was not so glamorous as the teams played out a stalemate in front of yet another packed house in the coastal city. While the lack of goals was disappointing on the night, the kind of game displayed offered promise.
The hype surrounding the fixture was at a crescendo given the fact that it was a rematch of last year's final at the same venue, with both sets of fans eager to see their team start the league on the right note.
Kochi, as usual, was awash with yellow-clad supporters clamouring for the home team to put last year's ghosts to rest and the atmosphere was befitting of a season opener. Sending them into an even greater frenzy was the fact that Dimitar Berbatov was handed a start by Rene Meulensteen, along with fan favourite Iain Hume.
But, after a frenetic start to the game, it was Teddy Sheringham's charges, led by Finnish striker Njazi Kuqi in the absence of an injured Robbie Keane, who assumed control of the game. With Conor Thomas and Eugeneson Lyngdoh taking charge of the midfield, ATK passed the ball around with purpose while Blasters found it hard to thread four or five passes together for much of the first half.
One player who caught the eye in the first half was ATK's Hitesh Sharma, who was deployed just behind Kuqi in a 4-4-1-1. The former Mumbai FC youngster showed no nerves on his ISL debut as he linked up play beautifully. He could have capped his debut with a goal in the 13th minute when he saw his shot saved expertly by Paul Rachubka after a lovely give-and-go with Conor Thomas. He was assured in possession and seemed willing to receive the ball every time.
Kerala Blasters, on the other hand, seemed rusty and incoherent in attack. There was a lot of talk on Kerala's stellar forward line which consisted of Iain Hume, Dimitar Berbatov and CK Vineeth prior to the game. But none of them managed to impact the game or link up meaningfully with each other, meaning most of the forays forward by Blasters was cut short by their own waywardness.
However, conclusions cannot be drawn from one game alone given that the players are still getting used to each other and their manager's system. And Berbatov was playing more as a lone striker in the first half, with Hume shunted out left. While the latter was his typical energetic self, he could not produce anything meaningful in attack and Berbatov is not the guy to stretch the opposing defence by running the channels.
Hence, it was no surprise to see Berbatov drop into the hole in the second half and Hume hauled off at the hour mark for lanky Dutch striker Mark Sifneos. While the Bulgarian ace did see more of the ball in the second period, he could not influence the game as we all know he can. But one has to be mindful of the fact that Berbatov's quality is on the ball and not off it. And the Tuskers saw very less of the ball.
While ATK's midfield and defence excelled, with full-backs Prabir Das and Keegan Pereira enjoying the freedom down the wings, their finishing disappointed. Kuqi had a couple of good opportunities to score while Robin Singh, introduced in the second half, also could have found the back of the net.
Portuguese winger Zequinho, making the most of the time and space offered by Rino Anto who did not have the best of games at right-back, came the closest to scoring when he cut in and saw a curling shot crash back off the far post in the second-half.
One wonders if ATK should have picked all three points on offer, given the lack of attacking threat from the home team.
Both Meulensteen and Sheringham will have issues to address ahead of their next games. Apart from the finishing, Debjit Majumder was extremely shaky in goal for the visitors - often punching without conviction and rushing into panicked clearances. Meulensteen will want some bite in his midfield, given that Arata Izumi was almost invisible in a holding role.
On the positive side, it was heartening to see both teams show an intent to pass the ball around and work openings while keeping their shape and organisation instead of just punting the ball up and hope it will materialise into a chance. ATK's system showed plenty of promise and the return of Robbie Keane and Carl Baker should only help their cause.
The home team, to their credit, also did not resort to aimless long balls and tried to thread passes when they had the ball. Though incoherence meant Kerala's attempts were not threatening enough, it will only improve from this point on.
Kerala Blasters have been slow starters traditionally and Meulensteen would not be too bothered by this draw.