Much of the fireworks remained off the pitch at the Marina Arena as host Chennaiyin and Kerala Blasters played out a goal-less draw. 18 goals were scored the last six times the teams met but both managers opted for a cautious approach, looking to unlock the opposition defence through long-balls.
No place for Riise and Jeje
Chennaiyin manager rang the changes after what he had called an ‘upsetting’ draw against FC Pune City. Indian striker Jeje did not find a place in the starting line-up as the Italian opted to play a front three of David Succi, Dudu Omagbemi and Baljit Sahni (RF). Marquee signing John Arne Riise also failed to find a spot in the starting line-up with Eli Sabia Filho keeping his place from the last match.
Coppell went in with an unchanged side and his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation with Mehtab Hossain and Azrack Mahamat playing the two-man pivot in midfield.
The game started with Chennai on the attack. Mohammed Rafique was robbed in the left wing by Dudu, who then unleashed a shot that could only be parried into the six-yard box by Kerala ‘keeper Sandip Nandy. Luckily for Kerala, the ball fell to Sandesh Jhingan who cleared it for a corner.
Both teams opted for a cautious approach after the initial scramble and it was the ever-impressive Raphael Augusto who created a chance for the home side. In the 19th minute, Chennai’s no. 19 bluffed Jhingan, who was getting no assistance from midfielder Mohammed Rafique in the flanks, but couldn’t direct the pass correctly to striker Succi.
The match suddenly picked up some tempo. Kerala came close with Belfort’s cross from the left causing concerns for Chennai defence while at the other end Bernard Mendy hit the side-netting even as Succi had a header blocked by Aaron Hughes.
Chennai lost influential midfielder Hans Mulder to an injury in the 34th minute and was replaced by Italian Mauele Blasi. The first half ended with the scores level.
Second half began with Kerala on the front foot. Jhingan and Rafique sent in dangerous crosses that the host struggled to deal with while Belfort had a free header in the box that went narrowly close after he was found in the box by Josu Currais.
Chopra was substituted at the 58th minute and Kerala looked a sharper side from then on, benefiting from Didier Boris Kadio’s pace. The Ivorian linked up well with Belfort in the 59th minute but the shot again failed to test the Chennai keeper.
Materazzi brought in the quick Maurizio Peluso for Succi in the 63rd minute but was left to rue the decision as seconds later Kerala’s big defender Hughes succumbed to an injury and was replaced by Pratik Chaudhary. Succi’s aerial presence would have been a nuisance for Jhingan.
Even though Kerala lost its influential captain, the side remained the more aggressive one, creating a series of chances. The best opportunity to open the score-sheet fell to Belfort when Rafique swept in a low cross from the right wing. But the Haitian could not control the shot and missed the far post by a whisker.
Rafi was replaced by Duckens Nazon in the 73rd minute and the new look forward line kept piling the pressure on Chennaiyin defence that was starting to tire. The substitute found free space outside the box in the 80th minute but his left-footed curler went straight to keeper Karanjit.
At the other end Chennai created a chance — Raphael Augusto playing a sublime through ball for Peluso in the 84th minute — but the Blasters defenders held firm to see out the match and earn another clean sheet.
Kerala Blaster’s Coppell will definitely be the happier manager after seeing his side stifle a strong Chennaiyin away from home. But the same questions will be asked about manager’s insistence of playing Chopra and Rafi up-front after another hapless attacking performance.
Kerala looked a changed side with Kadio and Nazon in the team and one can only wonder why an unfit Chopra is picked ahead of the players. Rafique won the pass-of-the-match award but that was perhaps his only significant contribution in the entire match. AFC Cup final-bound C.K. Vineeth’s pace is sorely missed in the team.
This was Chennaiyin and Materazi’s opportunity to make a statement after a disappointing draw against FC Pune City in its previous game. But the manager’s gamble of playing Dudu and Succi, two strikers who like to occupy the same region, backfired and failed to exploit Kerala’s makeshift full-backs.