Two-time champions ATK scored their 100th goal in the Hero Indian Super League but that wasn’t enough to provide them with any joy in the opening match of the sixth edition at the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium in Kochi on Sunday.
Carl McHugh had put ATK ahead with an absolute stunner in only the sixth minute of the game but the hosts, egged on by a vociferous crowd, hit back with two goals from new signing Bartholomew Ogbeche in the first half itself for a 2-1 victory.
The result sees Kerala get the better of ATK in their ISL opener once again, having recorded a 2-0 win last season in Kolkata.
The game got off to an electrifying start with the visitors stunning the packed crowd early in the game. ATK capitalised on a free-kick given for a foul on Jayesh Rane by Jeakson Singh. The set-piece into the box was cushioned back for McHugh by Agustin García Iniguez at the far post. The Irishman went on to slam a brilliant first-time volley with his left foot that gave Bilal Khan in the Kerala goal no chance whatsoever.
With the wind in their sails from an early goal, ATK continued to press Kerala relentlessly and fashioned several chances to double their lead, the best of which came in the 22nd minute. Roy Krishna embarked on a sizzling run from midfield, going past a couple of Kerala defenders into the box, but opted to slide it for Javier Hernandez rather than shoot himself and the ball trickled away.
A rattled Kerala were handed a lifeline into the game when ATK winger Michael Soosairaj went down in the box under Sergio Cidoncha’s challenge. But the referee waved away the protests and Kerala won a corner from the ensuing counter-attack.
That set-piece would produce the equaliser for Kerala. Ogbeche saw his looping header from the far post come back off the upright, only for Pronay Halder to pull down Jairo Rodriguez who was about to slot it in. The referee awarded the spotkick and Ogbeche made no mistake in beating Arindam Bhattacharja to lift the spirits of the home support.
The Men in Yellow started to enjoy more time on the ball following the equaliser and stormed into the lead just before half-time. Pronay failed to clear a low cross from Prasanth Karuthadathkuni and the loose ball was driven in smartly by a lurking Ogbeche.
Kerala continued their ascendancy at the start of the second half as well, keeping the ball well and forcing errors from ATK.
However, Krishna continued to threaten the Kerala defence, although his finishing let the visitors down. In the 69th minute, the Fijian was sent through on goal but a sliding tackle from Jairo meant the chance went begging.
Shortly after, Krishna saw another shot from close-range blocked away by substitute Mario Arques.
But Eelco Schattorie’s team held their nerves and fashioned a few chances of their own. Ultimately, they saw off the game quite comfortably to start their campaign on a winning note.