A Javi Lara strike helped Atletico de Kolkata secure their first win of the season against Kerala Blasters on Wednesday. Both teams came into the match on the back of disappointing defensive displays in their respective season openers – while Atletico improved on their shortcomings, Kerala Blasters once again failed to make the most of their chances.
A formation change was in order for the Blasters with Steve Coppell overhauling his starting XI. Duckens Nazon started upfront alongside Antonio German. While Mehtab Hossain retained his place, Mohammed Rafique, Ouzin Ndoye and Farukh Chowdhury came into the midfield to line up in a traditional 4-4-2. The most surprising decision was the inclusion of Josu Currias, Kerala’s only genuine playmaker, as a left back.
Jose Molina chose to start Jewel Raja and Prabir Das – a move which paid dividends as Atletico looked far more incisive during the opening exchanges. While Sameehg Doutie tried to exploit the space behind Currias (who is not a natural left back), Javi Lara adopted a more proactive role on the left flank.
An injury to Helder Postiga compelled Molina to bring in Juan Belencoso and prompted a tactical change – as Javi Lara took up a central position and Iain Hume pushed forward through Atletico’s left. Not only did this switch allow Lara to influence his team’s attacks more holistically, but it also ensured Atletico controlled the tempo of the game.
One of Atletico’s downfalls during their draw against Chennaiyin was that they did not attack the ball enough in the final third. Juan Belencoso, a target-man in the most traditional sense, almost immediately solved the problem with his direct approach. The 35-year-old had a few opportunities to get on the scoresheet but failed to find his mark.
It was, however, Belencoso’s link-up play which helped Javi Lara break the deadlock in second half. A shot from range took a wicked deflection off Sandesh Jhingan to make its way into the back of the net past a helpless Graham Stack. It was just another addition to the misfortunes suffered by the Indian stopper, who did not have a good game overall.
“We had a great match, a great first half. I think we could have scored some goals. It’s true we have to improve our last pass or finishing touch, try to score more goals. [I am] really happy with the team, great performance by all the players. Of course we can score more goals, but I’m really happy,” Molina exclaimed in the post-match presser.
Kerala Blasters, without their marquee player Aaron Hughes (who is on international duty for Northern Ireland), were in desperate need of inspiration elsewhere. Although Antonio German stepped up, dribbling through the Atletico defense, the former Queens Park Rangers' youth product failed to garner any support from his teammates.
German’s slick movement in between the channels caught the Atletico backline on the wrong foot on a number of occasions, but all of Kerala Blasters’ attacks fizzled out without troubling custodian Debjit Majumder. The inclusion of Currias as a wingback to support Mohammad Rafique could have been a tactical masterclass on any other night, but Atletico effectively dealt with Rafique’s marauding runs through Kerala’s left channel.
The Blasters’ best moments came in the last ten minutes of both halves when they aggressively pressed back Atletico into their defensive mould – winning the ball back and orchestrating sequential waves of attack. Belfort’s substitution instilled energy into the Kerala Blasters side but without any end result.
Atletico defended extremely narrow – forming two banks of four in front of their goal whenever they lost possession – with Borja, Arnab Mondal and Tiri at their absolute best. Lapses of concentration had hurt Atletico against Chennaiyin FC but against Kerala Blasters, the central defensive duo ensured none of their opponent’s runs went unchecked in open play or set piece scenarios.
Kerala Blasters came close during stoppage time with Hengbert heading wide and Currias testing Majumder with a free-kick but failed to register a single shot over the course of ninety minutes. While Atletico de Kolkata will celebrate the three points earned under the hot and humid conditions before their difficult away fixture against Mumbai City FC, it is back to the drawing board for Steve Coppell and his Kerala Blasters side, who looked a far shadow from the team which was the runners-up in the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League.