KOCHI: Indian Super League started from where it left off last season. Same teams, Kerala Blasters and ATK, at the same venue — the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium in Kochi and the outcome at the end of regulation time — a stalemate just like that on the occasion of the grand finale of the 2016 edition last December.
Blasters head coach Rene Meulensteen might have said on the eve of the game that both the sides feature different players and coaching staff in the new season, but the home team’s poor record against ATK continues with this goalless draw in the season opener. Blasters now have recorded just one win in nine matches against ATK and have lost five — including twice in the final of the tournament.
Meulensteen set out with a mouthwatering attacking pairing of returning Canadian striker Iain Hume and Bulgarian hitman Dimitar Berbatov while Wes Brown, the latter’s former teammate at Manchester United, missed out due to a knock. Rene’s counterpart Teddy Sheringham was without the services of English midfielder Carl Baker, while another Englishman Tom Thorpe, a graduate of the United academy, partnered captain Jordi Figueras in the backline.
It was Blasters who threatened first as Ongnam Milan Singh had a sighter as early as the fourth minute. However, the first effort on goal came at the opposite end in the 13th minute when Rupert Nongrum forced a save out of Blasters custodian Paul Rachubka.
Despite playing in front of a hostile crowd, ATK were the side who were ticking and had the best of chances in the first half. In the 26th minute, Blasters full back Lalruatthara did well to clear the danger with Finnish striker Njazi Kuqi lurking after a scramble inside the box. Though all the build-up to the game was around his name, Berbatov cut a frustrated figure up front in the game.
After getting little service in the early minutes, the Bulgarian swapped positions with Hume to play deeper but still had little impact on the game. Dutch forward Markos Sifneos was brought on in place of Hume after the break, but ATK did not relent. The closest the two-time champions came to a goal in this match was in the 70th minute, when their mideo Jose Branco cut inside from the left wing and planted a left-footer which beat Rachubka and rattled the woodwork.
Berbatov had to wait until after 90 minutes to excite the 37,462 strong crowd as he directed a header at goal, but ATK keeper Debjit Majumder was in the right position to gather effortlessly.