KOCHI: Even as six minutes of stoppage time were being played, thousands of cell phone beams flashed in a sparkling tribute to Kerala Blasters FC in anticipation of a well-deserved win. The hosts were leading 2-0. Pretty soon, the home fans were stunned into silence as FC Pune City pulled one back courtesy a free-kick from Mexican striker Anibal Rodriguez. An apt warning that the job of securing a semifinal berth is still unfinished for the Blasters.
But in registering their fourth successive home win this season, Steve Coppell’s side took a step towards qualification, lifting themselves to 18 points — the same as second-placed Atletico de Kolkata, but a spot behind on goal difference. And the Blasters would be wishing that they hadn’t let their guard down in the final minutes to let in a goal, should statistics come in the way of deciding play-off spots. But those worries are for another day.
The win was made possible by two current internationals — a rare thing in the ISL — returning to the Blasters fold after being called up by their respective national teams for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. While Haiti striker Duckens Nazon calmed home nerves with an early goal, Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes proved just how vital he is to the franchise’s cause by topping up his marquee status with a header in the second session.
Coppell lined up the Blasters in a 4-4-2 system with emphasis on attacking through the wings as CK Vineeth, on the left, and Mohammad Rafi, starting on the right, provided width to stretch the rival defence. Assured by the return of Hughes, the defence — unlike during the ‘Mumbai Mayhem’ — held shape for the most part and took care to play aerial balls to their forwards from deep. The strategy took out of the equation the strapping frame of Pune marquee Mohamed Sissoko, of Liverpool and Paris St Germain fame, who could well have dominated central midfield had the ball been in circulation more often in that part of the pitch. It also ensured that supply to the dangerous strike pairing of Rodriguez and Argentinian Gustavo Oberman was cut off.
The visitors looked threatening when the Mali international had the ball, especially in the second part of the first half. Pune, facing a must-win situation, could have drawn level, but for Arata Izumi’s incredible miss. With keeper Sandip Nandy failing to get proper connection with his attempted punch off a delivery from the left, the ball was looping into the net when Izumi tried to nudge it home. He ended up losing his balance and making a ‘clearance’ off the line.
The hosts slowed things down in the second half with possession football even as a dispirited Pune appeared to lose their shape a bit. For good measure, Coppell shut things up by bringing on an additional man in midfield, with Didier Kadio replacing Kervens Belfort.