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Three Things We Learned: Kerala Blasters 0-0 ATK

Aravind Unnikrishnan discusses three talking points after the Indian Super League opener finished Kerala Blasters 0-0 ATK

The inaugural match of the fourth edition of Indian Super League between Kerala Blasters and ATK  failed to match expectations as both teams shared a point to kick-start their campaign. Much to the despair of thousands of fans that flocked to the JLN stadium in Kochi, Kerala Blasters – under the new manager and new crop of players – seemed to struggle and were a shadow of their past selves. ATK, on the other hand fought bravely on enemy territory and came close to a famous victory that would have extended their record to six wins in nine games against Kerala.

Kerala Blasters’ much talked-about trio fail to deliver

On paper, the trio of Berbatov-Hume-Vineeth might glitter like shining stars, but Rene Meulensteen has to dig up the right formula to unleash it on the pitch. Sooner he gets it on track, less chances that the Bulgarian would cut a desolate figure on the pitch like today.

In the first half, the former Manchester United man failed to combine with Hume and Vineeth to form a deadly force going forward. His nightmare debut for the Yellow army ended with the forward finding himself in midfield just before the final whistle.

Rene’s decision to give a free role to Courage Pekuson in the first half did little to put pressure on ATK’s defence. The absence of a player behind the striker often left a huge void between the lines as it forced their attack to shift the ball wide in search of some creativity. Later in the first half, a shift in position saw Iain Hume coming into the free role with Pekuson taking up the Canadian’s position, but a static Berbatov didn’t help proceedings.

Introduction of 18-year old Mark Sifneos incredibly put some life in the Kerala attack thanks to his defence splitting runs and agility. On one instance Jordi, the ATK captain fought tooth and nail to keep the young striker at bay with a perfectly timed last ditch tackle.

Meulensteen could perhaps field a more dynamic and versatile attacking line-up of Pekuson-Hume-Vineeth with Sifneos as forward until Berbatov hits top form.

ATK badly missed a finisher

Like Kerala, Teddy Sheringham’s high ball tactics, that almost forked out a victory for ATK, clearly underlined his one-way strategy to get results without their marquee player, Robbie Keane. With better finishing, the current ISL champions would have put the game to bed considering the clear cut chances they created in the game.

Nevertheless, the English manager’s first game put forth a bunch of hidden flaws in the team that needs to be repaired in the coming days. It’s the wide players who did most of the work as their central midfielders held a deeper role to cover the defence.

The essence of a tight-knit attacking line up played a crucial part in Kolkata’s dominance. Their forward players namely Hitesh Sharma and Njazi Kuqi with their ability to find space and shoot inside the Kerala box made them look dangerous at times. Add the quality support from wide by Rupert Nongrum and Zequinha and Kolkata really had the Kerala crowd’s hearts skip a beat on many occasions.

ATK can further bolster their attack with the addition of Robbie Keane, although a quality attacking midfielder to bridge the gap should be on Teddy’s list when he prepares for the upcoming games. This option would definitely make them more dangerous and dynamic in their approach.

Crucial and exciting days ahead for Kerala Blasters

A lot has been expected from a highly experienced manager like Rene Meulensteen who deserves special credit for building a great Manchester United team and his part in Sir Alex Ferguson’s memorable era between 2007 and 2012. The organization and fans expect him to build a strong foundation if not a strong team in his debut season with the club.

The team spend heavily in this transfer window to strengthen the squad adding more options and balance. So fans will expect to see an attacking-centric football particularly when the manager had successfully implemented a similar system elsewhere.

In the first 20 minutes, Kerala emulated a similar approach, though it didn’t last for long. But with a more dynamic structure he could slowly incorporate it into the team.

With more games on the way, he doesn’t have enough time to ponder, but with a squad that boasts a collection of good quality players, it might not take much time before we see a team that plays an entertaining brand of football.

Aravind Unnikrishnan

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