The initial temptation is to blame the home supports' brilliantly co-ordinated Mexican wave and say that perhaps Kerala’s defence were just as captivated as us at the sight. A sea of over 50,000 people dressed in yellow rising up and sitting down can be a bit distracting. That burst of optimism gave way though, within moments, and Graham Stack could only watch helplessly as Javier Lara’s deflected shot hit the back of his net, to inflict on Kerala their fourth consecutive defeat against their arch nemesis Kolkata.
At this point however, the Mexican wave would be a flimsy excuse for Kerala to argue with. Their flaws run a bit deeper than that. They find themselves stuck to the bottom of the table, without a point, courtesy of a neatly threaded cross, and an unlucky deflection, but the fact remains, they just can’t seem to be able to score. To do that, they have to first hit the target. They have not forced the opposing keeper into a save for 180 minutes in the league now.
Everyone knows sport teams enjoy a huge advantage playing at home, but rarely do people seem to know why. The reasons seem pretty simple. Sport is a tribal business, and local tribes like to think that anyone who strayed on to their patch was in for a hard time. The home team gets to sleep in their own beds, play at a ground they are familiar with, and their opponents need to deal with open hostility, or worse, silent contempt, which can drain their confidence away.
The first two don’t hold true for the Blasters though. They haven’t appeared at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi since their 5-1 pasting by Goa last year. Their pre-season has been entirely away from this ground, and when they took to the field, it was, literally, their first homecoming. Chiranjeevi, who has just joined as an owner of the team, probably felt more at home in Kochi, than the Blasters did.
None of it mattered to the fans though, who were perhaps just glad that football was back, and filled up the stadium in droves. It was a spectacular sight, no matter where you watched it from.
Prior to the match Steve Coppell had spoken about how Kerala had tried a possession-based game against NorthEast United FC, but failed. He expressed the hope that his team would play at a faster pace against Kolkata.
In that, they did not disappoint. Up front Antonio German and Duckens Nazon seemed a threat everytime the Blasters broke away. It helped that Coppell had dispelled with the three man defence and had gone for a flat 4-4-2. He had hinted that Josu Currais may start at left-back and that’s where the Spaniard appeared, creaking up long passes from left base, but often leaving his post uncovered for the opposing wingers.
It was from Currais’ side that the first real chance of the game came, Iain Hume, running away with a long ball played by Borja, and crossing it for Hélder Postiga in the centre. If it wasn’t for Pratik Chaudhari—filling in for Aaron Hughes, who is away on international duty, and his willingness to throw his body at the ball, the mood in Kochi could’ve soured very very early in.
Despite Kolkata doing most of the passing and haranguing through the first half, it was Kerala that came away with the best chances. German and Nazon played like lone strikers, two men in one body, twisting and turning, often indistinguishable as they ran in figure of eights at Atletico’s defence. Nazon would fashion a chance out of nothing from a half cross by German, lifting the ball, and turning in the same movement, only to blast wide. Moments later German was running at Kolkata, twisting and cutting away, before running into a brick wall. It was a pattern that would repeat itself several times through the game.
For all of that, it was Kolkata that came away with the goal though, Juan Beloncoso winning a long ball very easily at the top of the box, before Lara drove away, turned to his favoured foot and smashed the ball into Jhingan’s knee and subsequently the net. The crowd fell silent. The Mexican wave was laid to rest.
Kerala had not lost an opening game at home in the ISL ever. Kolkata hadn’t lost their first game away either. Someone had to break.
The next half an hour was torture. Kerala played with the air of a team yet to accept the severity of the situation, and Kolkata did not hasten them to a rethink. It took till literally the end of official game time, for Kerala to trouble Kolkata’s nerves.
Michael Chopra’s introduction brought another flurry of well informed play in the final third. Suddenly, from looking like a team that ran out of options as soon as they reached the opponents’ box, the Blasters began pushing Kolkata deeper and deeper in. Fouls were conceded, and, in retrospect, the referee would probably feel he got it wrong when he booked Kervens Belfort for a dive. Ralte had quite clearly run his foot into the Haitian in the box.
That decision roused the home support and Kerala threw men forward. In the final moments, it all boiled down to that ancient English goalscoring art: the setpiece. Coppell’s men though didn’t manage to pull off ‘the Solksjaer’ though. Despite the near misses, and the oohs and aahs, the statistics were clear. Zero shots on target. Zero goals in the league.
This was an up though. Kerala rediscovered their heart and their fire. If they take those final ten minutes, and expand to do what they did there for an extended period, this losing streak is sure to go away. For extended periods of the game, they were the better team, breaking at pace and with Nazon and German up front, playing attractive fast footed football.
Games aren’t always won playing prettily though. Ask Sachin Tendulkar, the Blasters’ co-owner. In Sydney against Australia in 2004, Sachin toiled for a score of 241*. Toiled because he played a majority of the innings without his trademark cover drive, eliminating it from his game to avoid risk.
Kerala could learn from that perhaps. Condense those final minutes and this is what you get. They seem to be a team that thrives on set-pieces. Why wouldn’t they? Josu Currais is brilliant at delivering the dead ball and in Hengbart, Hughes, Chopra and Jhingan, they have a physically imposing quartet, who can cause a lot of confusion in the box. So what if three of them are defenders? Drag them up the pitch for the dead ball and make them count. Make them hit the target. The goals will follow.