After holding much of the sway in Kochi during their Indian Super League (ISL) opener, ATK would have felt a little short-changed coming away with only a solitary point for all their efforts. Nevertheless, the extremely fluid and silky game they displayed against the Kerala Blasters had shown encouraging signs for the defending champions in the latest campaign.
On Sunday though, it all came crashing down for Teddy Sheringham’s men in front of their home fans at the Yuba Bharati Krirangan stadium in Kolkata. Once again their football was pleasing to the eye to begin with as they started the game very much on the front foot. But once again, the two-time champions were found wanting in the final third of the pitch.
Four goals were smashed into the Kolkata net on the night with last season’s Golden Boot winner Marcelinho being the destructor-in-chief for FC Pune City. While ATK’s shortcomings in the attack have now become well apparent after their opening two games, it was the exposure of a soft underbelly in defence that will rankle Sheringham the most.
Manchester United youth product Tom Thorpe’s huge gaffe for Pune’s opener which allowed Emiliano Alfaro to sneak in behind the ATK defence set the tone of the night for the Kolkata team. They looked suspect at the back all throughout the 90 minutes as Popovic’s men were content to sit back and break after the opener.
Thorpe’s partnership with Jordi Figueres at the heart of the defence was made to look ordinary by Alfaro who was a menace from start to finish. The Uruguayan put in a proper No.9 performance, holding the ball up well to release the likes of Marcelinho and Diego Carlos to create havoc in the Kolkata defence.
For ATK, youngster Bipin Singh looked the part on the right-wing with his tireless running at the Pune defence. It was, in fact, his brilliant free-kick which got the hosts back into the match after the interval. His equalizer should have brought a renewed push for victory for Sheringham’s men but instead, they were sucker-punched at the other end just minutes later.
Once again a lack of organization and leadership was on display at the back for Kolkata as Pune midfielder Rohit Kumar was allowed to charge in unmarked at the back post to score from a corner.
Eugenseson Lyngdoh and Conor Thomas might look good when Kolkata attack but their defensive contribution raised a lot of question marks as Alfaro and Marcelinho were able to find pockets of space behind them on a regular basis. Up front, Kuqi and Zequinha looked good in patches but were toothless in front of the goal like all of ATK’s attackers.
Robbie Keane’s return from injury cannot come soon enough for Sheringham and his men who are struggling with a lack of fire-power up top. Pune centre-backs Gurtej Singh and Rafael Lopez had been made to look ordinary against Delhi Dynamos previously but Kolkata’s attackers failed to create enough problems for the two on Sunday.
Baljit Sahni had to fill in at right-back for the visitors after an injury to Sarthak Golui but Zequinha failed to make the most of this opportunity. While Kolkata’s ineptitude in front of goal was a huge factor in their loss, credit has to be given to Popovic for setting up his team perfectly at the home of the defending champions. His side’s compact defensive shape forced ATK to attack from the flanks where their lack of quality with the final ball let them down. The defence was generally solid and they were given a lot of support by Marcos Tebar who was brilliant at the base of Pune’s midfield.
The midfielder swept up well ahead of his defence and was quick to release the attackers at any given opportunity. It was this solidity at the back which allowed Pune’s attackers the freedom to hurt Kolkata on the counter. Brazilian Marcelinho, who had looked a little off-colour against Delhi, pulled the strings on Sunday with consummate ease as he burst through the Kolkata midfield on numerous occasions.
His link-up play with Alfaro was excellent throughout the 90 minutes as the duo made a mockery of Kolkata’s defence. Two goals and as many assists might have made the Brazilian the clear player-of-the-game but he himself will know the vital role Alfaro played on the night. The former NorthEast United striker was justly rewarded with a goal of his own though ATK custodian Debjit Majumdar will need to take a hard look in the mirror after allowing the ball to slip in at his near post.
All in all, it a was a tactical master-class from Popovic at the home of the champions after being outplayed by Delhi at home to start with. For Sheringham and co though, the task at hand just got a whole lot more difficult. While the glaring weaknesses in attack need addressing, the disasters at the back have thrown up questions of their own.