As league openers go, they did not get any bigger. Two of the biggest teams in the Indian Super League (ISL) in a yellow cauldron of noise at Kochi that has drawn comparisons with the best atmospheres for football anywhere in the world. With Rene Meulensteen and Teddy Sheringham, both formerly of Manchester United, at the helm of affairs for Kerala Blasters and Atletico De Kolkata respectively, the stage was set for a quality game of football.
As is usually the case with hyped up matches, the end result was a drab 0-0 with few moments of genuine quality. Meulensteen alluded to the hot, humid conditions at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium while discussing his team’s performance, but it does look like more work needs to be done on the training ground before his methods bear fruit. Even with a seemingly depleted squad this season, Atletico looked the better team, dominating possession for large periods and moving the ball around with more purpose than the home team.
A good part of Kerala’s problems stemmed from the manager’s use of the star man, Dimitar Berbatov. Make no mistake, Berbatov has been a great signing, probably the best player yet in a nascent league. Unlike most other marquee signings over the last four years, he is not far removed from his last competitive appearance at a high level, appearing for Greek club, PAOK, in 2015-16.
Meulensteen started with Berbatov, returning hero and all time ISL top scorer, Iain Hume and India international, C.K. Vineeth. Berbatov played the first half up top as a target man with Hume on the left flank and Vineeth on the right. This did not quite work, and he found himself isolated in the box, dropping deep to collect the ball at times. Hume would probably have suited the position better and it was not a surprise to see Meulensteen switch to a 4-4-1-1 in the second half with Berbatov in a slightly withdrawn position. The Blasters improved but kept turning the ball over with regular alacrity, with Berbatov’s touch sometimes deserting him.
It is too early to suggest that Berbatov will struggle in India, but questions will be raised about the Blasters frontline. Is it possible to accommodate Berbatov, Hume and Vineeth in the starting lineup without affecting the balance in the team?
Berbatov has always been a languid presence in the teams he has graced. Like with many such players, he has been accused of switching off for periods and appearing disinterested. There were signs yesterday where he appeared a frustrated figure, especially when Rino Anto sent two crosses in from the right flank of dubious quality, missing the field completely. How long before the heat, humidity and lesser quality of his teammates get to him?
For Indian football’s sake, we hope this will not be the case. There is so much that C.K. Vineeth in particular can learn from him and he has already been raving about Berbatov’s one touch football. The Bulgarian Hitman is still a class act. It is upto Meulensteen and the Kerala Blasters to get the most out of him.