Kerala Blasters and Atletico de Kolkata hosted the first leg semifinals of Hero Indian Super League on Saturday and Sunday. While KB recorded a great 3-0 win against Chennaiyin FC and brightened their chances for the title round, ATK could not utilize the home advantage against FC Goa as the match finished goalless. The ISL has seen the late emergence of Kerala and Goa as strong contenders and Kolkata losing their color after three victories in the first 10-12 days of the tournament. ATK won the inaugural match against Mumbai and followed that with two more victories on October 16 and 23 against Northeast United and FC Goa. Their only other victory on November 18 also came against NorthEast at home. But since then, they have not won a single match. They added to their woes by drawing 7 and losing 3 games and although they could enter the semifinals, nothing exemplary has come from their ranks. In sharp contrast, Goa and Kerala have improved their lot by impressive performances that took them to the knock-out phase. On December 13, KB stunned the table toppers Chennai, scoring two quick goals within first 30 minutes and found another in dying seconds. Next day, FC Goa held ATK goalless at the Salt Lake stadium and played better football than the home side. While KB is sitting pretty before the second leg, ATK will need to fire on all cylinders in the repeat game against Goa.
The first semifinal at Kochi began with Kerala showing urgency but it was Chennai, who found the first scoring chance in early minutes. Bernard Mendy surged ahead from right and passed a nice through ball to Jeje Lalpekhlua, who beat the offside trap but his shot was easily saved by the KB goalkeeper. Soon after, it was KB’s turn to launch the offensive. Iain Hume’s floating free-kick from left was at the right height for James McAllister, who sent the header home and just as he thought he had scored, he saw the linesman waving the off-side flag. In 27th minute, however, Kerala went in front, when Victor Forcada ran down the center and sent a perfect pass to Ishfaq Ahmed, who slammed hard on the run past the Chennai goalkeeper. In the 29th minute, KB doubled their lead. Once again, it was Ahmad, who got a good cross from Stephen Pearson and immediately relayed it to Iain Hume. But the ball was intercepted by Chennai’s Denson Devdas, who made an attempt to clear it. However, the ball got deflected from another Chennai defender and fell in the path of Hume, who lost no time in shooting it into the Chennai goal. Chennai was shaken by two goals in quick succession and retaliated by moves from the combo of Micheal Silvestre, Elano Blumer Balwant and Jeje but KB goalkeeper thwarted these attempts.
In the second half, Chennai dominated the game since KB were content in playing from behind and making counter-attacks when possible. Hume continued to scare the Chennai defense at times. The Chennai coach replaced Elano Blumer with Bruno Pelissari but Pelissari couldn’t make much difference. In the meanwhile, KB came close to scoring yet again in 79th minute, but Andrew Barisic couldn’t get his shot past the Chennai goalkeeper. KB made it 3-0 in dying minutes through substitute Sushanth Mathew, who produced a great curling hit from out of the box that sent the home fans into wild celebrations. Kerala will travel to Chennai to play the away-leg on December 16 and with a 3-goal advantage, the onus will be on Chennaiyin FC to stop them.
In Sunday’s other first-leg semifinal at Kolkata, the first half was full of attacking football from ATK’s new formation. Since Fikru was injured, Coach Habas put Mohammad Rafi and Luis Garcia into the front. The other players who completed the formation were; Sanju Pradhan, Rakesh Masih and Lester Fernandes. In the 6th minute, Garcia got a nice aerial ball at the goal mouth from Lester Fernandes but his header went off the target. But Kolkata kept Goa under pressure by attacking relentlessly through a 5-men midfield that employed the snatch-and-run method. To a large extent, ATK succeeded in scuttling the visitors’ play-rhythm. Though, Goa also launched a few moves, they faltered near the finish line. Goa’s mercurial stars Miroslav Slepicka and Andre Santos were rendered ineffective by ATK’s new strategy. But ATK obviously missed Fikru’s dynamic presence and could not convert the scoring chances. Goa’s Mandar Desai created a great chance for Romeo Fernandes but Romeo missed the mark by miles. Romeo got another chance, a few minutes later, when he collected a ball in the midfield and ran solo to enter the box but his strike was parried by the ATK goalkeeper.
The second half was identical to first. ATK made counter attacks from time to time but missed the target by wild shooting or weak strikes. Goa had a higher possession in second half but they couldn’t utilize that. Kolkata had another chance, when a free kick was floated across the Goa box but no ATK player was around to apply the touch. For Goa, Slepicka made some dangerous forays but somehow, the Czech striker could not strike powerfully. The goalless match remained a story of chance creation and no conversion. Goa must be pleased with the draw and when they host ATK at Margaon on December 17, they would just require a solitary goal against a side that has lost its rhythm in the last one month.