ISL 2017-18: Ranko Popovic's men left to regret open game as Kerala Blasters live to fight another day

David James’ men deliver sucker punch in an even game to keep their play-off hopes alive with four matches to go…..

Friday’s Indian Super League (ISL) clash between FC Pune City and the Kerala Blasters was a vital one for both sides for different reasons. For Ranko Popovic’s men, it represented a chance to go top of the league table while for the Blasters, three points were somewhat of a necessity for their top-four hopes.

Ultimately, the visitors’ needs triumphed over Pune’s wants as Kerala ran out 2-1 winners on the night courtesy of a last-gasp winner by CK Vineeth. For the second time in the season, Popovic was sent to the stands after an altercation with the fourth official. He could only watch from the afar as the visitors thumped in arguably two of the best goals you will see in the ISL this season.

The hallmark of the Serbian’s side in their best-ever campaign so far has been their organization and defensive structure. Before Friday, Pune had let in only 12 goals in as many matches, the joint best defensive record in the league with Jamshedpur FC who had played a game more.

He wouldn’t have liked the fact about how open the game was with both sides having numerous opportunities throughout the ninety minutes. The start to the game was electric with Pune custodian Vishal Kaith almost gifting the visitors a goal after a poor mis-kick while at the other end Diego Carlos called Subhasish Roy into making an excellent save.

The tone of the game had been set and it was hence a surprise that they went into the break goalless. Emiliano Alfaro and Marcelinho had been excellent for the home side while Jackichand Singh and Courage Pekuson had looked lively for the visitors.

The referee’s decision making had left a lot to be desired and so Popovic’s outburst at half-time was somewhat understandable but he should have counted himself lucky after Marcelinho escaped a red for a two-footed lunge on Prasanth Karuthadathkuni. He should in fact have been thanking his stars when the referee blew for a spot-kick which Alfaro converted to restore parity for Pune after Jackichand had given Kerala the lead with a sublime finish from outside the box. Yes, Popovic had a point to discuss as well when they were denied a penalty in the first half with Marko Stankovic being brought down inside the box by Lalruatthara, who should have been sent-off. 

What Pune dearly felt the absence of was Marcos Tebar’s presence in midfield which allows them to be a lot more solid with the likes of Alfaro and Marcelinho are left to do their thing in attack. The midfield pairing of Adil Khan and Baljit Sahni was often too easily overrun by Kerala’s attackers and was partly responsible for Jackichand’s goal to give the visitors the lead. In fact, Sahni was an anonymous presence in the middle of the park.

For David James’ men for whom 2-1 is now becoming a familiar scoreline, they will take a lot of positives from the last-ditch victory in a match where they went toe-to-toe with the hosts. Vineeth’s penchant for a late goal to secure a second win on the trot after a brace of defeats has managed to keep their season well and truly alive after it seemed they were headed nowhere at the mid-season point.

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They survived some nervy moments in the second period when Marcelinho struck the frame of the woodwork twice but what they sacrificed with a sometimes nervy defence, they more than made up for it through a constant will to attack. It was a game that could have gone either way but no one can complain that the Blasters were not full value for their points.

While their top four hopes remain alive, it came at a cost for the Kochi-based side as they lost Iain Hume to a knee injury and Sandesh Jhingan to an automatic suspension for collecting his fourth booking. The fact that they live to fight another day will be all that counts for James and his men for a defeat here could very well have ruled out a top four finish.

They will travel to ATK now with a renewed vigour while for Popovic and his men, it will be back to the drawing board as they seek to plug the holes in midfield with the season run-in now approaching.

Source: Google Sports

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