Gokulam Kerala were held to a 1-1 draw by Churchill Brothers on Friday at the EMS Stadium in Kozhikode.
Willis Plaza (5') opened the scoring early but the home side fought back into the game. Arjun Jayaraj (36') equalised as both teams shared the spoils at the final whistle.
Bino George made three changes to the lineup that beat Minerva Punjab 1-0. Newly registered striker Christian Sabah earned a start up front and Arjun Jayaraj returned to the midfield after recovering from a fever. Wungngayam Muirang replaced Deepak Kumar at left-back. Churchill Brothers' lineup was unchanged after a 3-0 win against Mohun Bagan.
The visitors started on the front foot and broke the deadlock in the fifth minute. A poor defensive header by Mohammad Rashid allowed Lamgoulen Hangshing to flick the ball with his head into the path of Willis Plaza who executed a neat finish into the net from inside the box.
The hosts struggled to get a grip on the match even after the goal. Churchill's organization and a high press made life difficult for the Malabarians.
Churchill continued to create chances and find holes in the Gokulam backline and the missed opportunities came back to bite them as opponents grew in confidence as the half progressed.
Plaza had a chance to add to his tally when Dawda Ceesay's footwork outfoxed Abhishek Das on the left flank and the forward crossed to the far post. The Trinidad and Tobago striker met the ball with his head but could only hit the side-netting.
At the half-hour mark, Rajesh dribbled through the centre and released Arjun Jayaraj into the box with a perfectly weighted through-ball. Richard Costa was alert to the danger and his crunching last-ditch tackle denied the hosts an equaliser.
However, the Malabarians were deservedly back in the game soon after. A lightning counter-attack in the 36th minute undid the Churchill backline. Shibinraj threw the ball towards Christian Sabah who skipped past Wayne Vaz's challenge and charged forward on the left flank. The Ghanian striker split the defence with his pass to Arjun Jayaraj who netted with a composed finish.
The game slowed down in the second half as teams waited for an opening to strike. Plaza continued to be a threat for Daniel Addo and Fabricio Ortiz but the striker failed to find the net whenever he was given time and space to shoot.
In the 76th minute, Plaza picked out Ceesay in the box whose low cross found substitute Nicholas Fernandes five yards away from an empty net but the forward failed to tap the ball in.
A match-winner evaded both teams as four minutes later, James Kithan fumbled the ball as Muirang crossed into the box and Christian Sabah, who pounced onto the loose ball, curled a shot that hit the underside of the crossbar and went out.