Kerala Blasters 1 – ATK 1
1) Same Old, Same Old From Blasters
Given that their last fixture had resulted in a 1-6 thumping at the hands of Mumbai, this performance should probably be seen in better light, but there was something drearily familiar about Kerala on the night. They do not have a goal scorer and it needed an own goal from Gerson Vieira to save them a point in the end. Former Highlanders head coach, Nelo Vingada has taken over from David James and is the seventh manager in the club’s short history. Following a disastrous stint with the Malaysian national side, he assisted Carlos Queiroz with Iran at the Asian Cup, and has just had a few days with his new side. It is unclear what the mandate is and with Kerala out of playoff contention, he will do well to stabilize the ship and ensure a mid-table finish.
2) Garcia’s Sweet Homecoming
Edu Garcia was brilliant for Bengaluru last season and his departure mid-season for Chinese side, Zhejiang Greentown FC, possibly cost them the title. He has returned to the ISL with ATK and was primarily tasked with creating opportunities for the side in the absence of Manuel Lanzarote. It was a difficult task with Kerala defending in numbers, but he did get a goal on debut just like he had at Bengaluru. Freekicks rolled under the defensive wall have been in vogue recently and Garcia managed to guide the ball home under the feet of the only Kerala defender who jumped in Nikola Krcmarevic. It was just reward for an enterprising performance and it will be interesting to note how Steve Coppell integrates both Garcia and Lanzarote in the side.
NorthEast United 1 – Chennaiyin FC 0
3) Ogbeche Wins It Yet Again
This match should have been put to bed well before Bartholomew Ogbeche’s 30-yard screamer in the 87thminute. NorthEast had 24 shots on goal and with Ogbeche effectively shackled by the Chennaiyin defence, the onus fell on others to deliver the goods. Federico Gallego had been the standout player for much of the game and had umpteen chances to put the Highlanders ahead. He squandered them all as did other members of the attack. With time running out, the Nigerian decided to take matters into his own hands, dropping deep to receive the ball before unleashing a rocket off his supposedly weaker left foot. Karanjit Singh in goal had no chance as would have been the case with any goalkeeper in the world. Ogbeche meanwhile, moved into double figures for the season, level at the top of the goal scoring charts with Goa’s Coro.
4) Chennaiyin’s Season In Danger Of Petering Out
The Marina Machans have brought C.K. Vineeth and Holicharan Narzary over from Kerala to address their issues in front of goal. It is a strange one given that they only have three goals between them this season in another side that have struggled with the same problem. If it were the case of fresh pastures reinvigorating the players, this game may not be the best one to judge their performances on. The Chennaiyin front men struggled for service throughout and hardly had any opportunity to make an impact. With only five games to go in this campaign and the side rooted to the bottom of the table, John Gregory may well decide to place all his eggs in Asian competition with the AFC Cup playoff round approaching in early March for the defending champions.
Mumbai City 1 – Bengaluru FC 0
5) The Islanders Serve Notice Of Title Credentials
Mumbai’s display against BFC in the reverse fixture caused them no little discomfort and the Islanders ensured that it stayed that way with another brilliant display at home. Jorge Costa has built a strong counter-attacking side built on robust defence and that is a template that has served previous ISL champions well. The goal in this game was an exercise in quick transitions. A Bengaluru corner came the way of Rafael Bastos and he set off with willing runners on either side. The ball was released onto the path of Paulo Machado and he finished with aplomb beyond the sprawling figure of big Gurpreet Singh. The quartet of Modou Sougou, Arnold Issoko, Bastos and Machado have terrorized defences this season, and the meanest backline in the league have had no answers to the questions posed of them. Twice.
6) Bengaluru’s Air Of Invincibility Evaporates
While the Blues came into this game with the only unbeaten record in the league, they have been far from infallible. Since Miku’s injury in early November, they have been run close in most of their matches and while their ability to grind out results has been admirable, they could only keep it up for so long. Their defence has kept them in matches in the absence of attacking thrust and Mumbai have uncovered a weakness in that area as well. I had mentioned after the first encounter between these sides that Albert Serran and Juanan would not look forward to this game and so it proved to be. Sougou and Issoko caused both of them all sorts of trouble with their pace in behind and more goals were there to be had. Injuries have disrupted Carles Cuadrat’s plans but he may need to go back to the drawing board to set things right for the title aspirants.
FC Goa 0 – Jamshedpur FC 0
7) Gaurs Kept Quiet At Home
Goa averaged 3.6 goals per game at the Fatorda heading into this encounter and all the talk was about gaining some measure of revenge for the 1-4 reverse at Jamshedpur in November. The long international break must have taken its toll since the Gaurs struggled to get into gear, especially in the first half. Coro cut an isolated figure for most of the game with the full backs, Seriton Fernandes and Mandar Dessai, refusing to put aerial balls into the box from promising positions. It was unclear if this was under instructions but the players running into the box could have done with some service given that Plan A was clearly not working. With twenty minutes to go, Goa came alive with the introduction of new boy, Zaid Krouch, but a goal could not be found. A draw was the perfect result for sixth placed ATK, and Sergio Lobera must be disappointed that his side did not put some distance between them and the chasing pack.
8) Yet Another Draw For The Red Miners
Jamshedpur came into this game with a clear plan to stifle Goa. They defended with a low block that made penetration difficult for the home team, but this also meant that they offered little in attack, except for a few breaks from time to time. Farukh Choudhary found himself quite some distance away from his midfield and was left chasing long balls for most of the game. The introduction of Tim Cahill did little to change that as Goa threw more people up front in search of a winner. Subrata Paul in goal was in inspired form towards the end and Cesar Ferrando was the happier coach at the end of proceedings. No one has drawn more games in the league than the team from Jamshedpur and they will know only too well that some of these draws need to be converted into victories. Last season’s fifth placed finish serves as a painful reminder.
Bengaluru FC 2 – NorthEast United 1
9) Gurpreet Saves The Blues
Bengaluru got through the latest test from an impressive NorthEast side, winning by the odd goal in three, despite having only one shot on target all game. They started well enough and got the lead courtesy a freekick routine clearly honed on the training ground. The plan would not have been for Mislav Komorski to drag the ball into his own net, but there was no taking away from its efficacy. It was all NorthEast after the goal though and only Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s heroics ensured that the Highlanders would leave town with a loss. For the second time this season, a Chencho Gyeltshen goal would decide the outcome. After securing a famous injury time equalizer in the reverse fixture, he got on to the end of a Juanan back-header in the box to seal all three points. NorthEast pressed on with urgency but there was no getting past India’s number one on the night.
10) Plucky Highlanders Unlucky To Lose
After being denied a win against BFC at home only in the closing minutes, heartbreak would strike again in a performance that was even more dominant. NorthEast kept the Blues attack at bay, allowing only four shots on goal, while attempting nineteen themselves. In one of the season’s best games, a crowd of almost 12000 were entertained to a feisty contest, and while the West Block Blues would continue to sing well past the final whistle, they knew that their team had been outplayed. Eelco Schattorie’s side have thrilled all season in a surprise tilt at the title, and on this evidence, they deserve to make the playoffs. The points quite eluded them on the day, but they have added to their burgeoning league of followers across the country.