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Blasters Struggle For Cohesion As ATK Show Defensive Prowess

Friday, 17 November 2017|Vineeth Krishnan

After all the hype and excitement, the first match of ISL-4 between Kerala Blasters and Amar Tomar Kolkata at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, produced a drab goalless scoreline. Dimitar Berbatov could not quite get into the game, Iain Hume cut a forlorn figure out wide while ATK had most of the better chances, including a curling shot from Jose Branco that rattled Paul Rachubka's post.

Indeed, the Kerala custodian and fellow ISL débutante Hitesh Sharma of the opposition were perhaps the two best players on the pitch. Hitesh drew two saves in the first half out of Rachubka, the former Manchester United player and youth trainee. While he could have done better with the first chance, Hitesh absolutely smashed his second effort, drawing the best save of the game out of the Blasters No.1.

Rene Meulensteen, who set the Blasters out in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Berbatov up front, surprisingly chose to employ Arata Izumi in a deep-lying playmaker role. Milan Singh, who was expected to be the pick for the defensive midfielder role, instead found himself playing closer to goal. The former Delhi Dynamos player had a couple of efforts on goal, including the first shot in earnest of the season, a rasping left-footed drive in the third minute that flashed past Debjit Majumder's post.

The Blasters right wing was by far the busier in the first half, with Milan, Arata and Courage Pekuson all looking for the ball over ATK's left back Keegan Pereira, to try and release last season's star man for the yellow and blue brigade, CK Vineeth. Supported ably by the over-lapping Rino Anto, Vineeth looked time and again to get to the by-line and put crosses in for Berbatov and Hume to attack. However, the delivery of the crosses from both the local lads (who interestingly sport 13 and 31 on their backs) left a lot to be desired.

Kerala's best attacking outlets came from their central midfielders with Milan and Pekuson having a good game. However, Milan in particular frustrated the home fans, using deft touches and flicks to get past his marker repeatedly, only to then undo all his good work by letting the simple things, such as a five-yard pass to an open teammate, get the better of him.

Pekuson meanwhile, had the best chance for the Blasters in the second half from a move he started by playing a delightful through ball to Vineeth. The winger cut inside on to his left foot and when his shot was parried by Majumder straight out to an unmarked Pekuson, the Ghanaian could only miscue his effort well wide when it seemed easier to score.

After the game, both managers were pleased with a cleansheet, but Sheringham was possibly the more disappointed with the result as his team had done everything he wanted them to, except finding the back of the net. Despite missing key players like Robbie Keane, Jayesh Rane and Ashutosh Mehta, ATK, who had set out to quieten the home crowd, did just that, even getting the boo-boys to make an appearance in the second half after a sustained spell of possession.

As Sheringham put it after the game, “if this were a boxing match, we'd have won on points.” Blasters' central defender Nemanja Pesic taking home the Man of the Match award itself spoke volumes about who were the better team on the night, with him and Sandesh Jhingan having to be at their best throughout.

The only time when ATK came under major pressure from the hosts was a 20 minute spell just before and after the mid-game interval. Meulensteen employed a tactical shift at the break, playing Berbatov in behind Hume in a 4-4-1-1. While they had some initial joy with this setup, much of the momentum dissipated when Hume was replaced by Markos Sifneos. The Dutch youngster showed brief glimpses of his potential in the half hour he was on the pitch, adding a different dimension to the Blasters attack with his pace.

Interestingly, while there has been a lot of talk about the shift to the 5 foreigners and 6 Indian players model from this year's ISL, both teams ended the game with 7 Indians on the pitch. Kerala's Prasanth K, who came on for fellow Malayali Vineeth, and ATK's Robin Singh both put in noticeable shifts off the bench.

In the end, the humid and tiring conditions seemed to get to most of the players who stayed on the pitch for the full 90 minutes. This game certainly had all the hallmarks of a first match of the season, with the players understandably still finding their match fitness and learning to get on the same wavelength. A point gained for both of last season's finalists was ultimately, the just outcome.