“It was a good match and we lost against a very good team, so it’s not revenge but it’s a special motive for us to focus on this team because it’s the only team we have lost to, so for this reason we will try to concentrate on this match.”
Gianluca Zambrotta could not have made it clear how much importance he attached to his team’s encounter against Atletico de Kolkata on Sunday. Delhi Dynamos’ sole blemish this season had arrived at the hands of its latest opponent. But after three straight wins had put Dynamos in the pole position, Zambrotta knew he could afford to refresh the starting eleven. The Italian, after all, would want his squad to be in peak shape when the playoffs come around.
So, four changes were made. Two of them were forced by injuries as Richard Gadze and Sana Singh were yet to recover from the blows they took in the previous game (the duo is expected to be fit in time for the next match vs FC Pune City on Friday.) Badara Badji and Lalchhawnkima replaced them.
But, arguably, it was the other two changes that had a greater bearing on the match. Marcos Tebar and Ruben Gonzalez Rocha were rested in favour of Emerson Moura and Ibrahima Niasse, respectively. The absence of the two Spaniards meant Dynamos could not impose themselves on the encounter like previous games. The centre-back Rocha and midfielder Tebar have been responsible for establishing control in the central areas, particularly by ensuring effective ball circulation. Furthermore, the duo has been a reference point for the side during transitions of play.
Their replacements Niasse and Moura, however, did not match the quality of their contributions. The absence of Rocha was starkly seen for Atletico’s first goal as Niasse and his central defensive partner Anas Edathodika were caught high up the pitch. This allowed Iain Hume to catch them off-guard and run past them before applying the finish.
The first half saw another disappointing contribution from one of the introductions in the side. Striker Badara Badji was sent off for two silly fouls; his second yellow card was a result of him flailing his arms mindlessly when he could not meet a cross in the opposition’s half.
However, there was a blessing in disguise for Dynamos. Niasse got injured within minutes of the sending-off. This meant that he was replaced by attacking left-back David Addy. Lalchhawnkima moved centrally and Addy started pushing up on his flank.
But before the Ghanaian could leave an imprint on the match, Marcelinho caught everyone’s attention by enacting a blatant dive around the hour mark. It was enough to con referee Tejas Nagvenkar. This was among the decisions which left Atletico de Kolkata’s coach Jose Molina disappointed. Speaking after the match, he said, “Whenever our players touched any Delhi player, the referee awarded a foul. But when Delhi’s players touched ours, there was no foul. I think my players were worried that the referee might send one of our players off (after Badji’s dismissal)… Florent Malouda is a very good player but the referee allowed him to do all that he wanted on the pitch. If the referee allowed me to do anything on the pitch, I might be able to have an impact like him. Or maybe not.”
Molina’s comments were interesting in themselves but they gain further importance in light of the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) statement last week which sought to curb the criticism faced by referees in the ISL. On current evidence, it does not seem that things will change anytime soon.
There was relief for Molina following the penalty decision, though, as Malouda was denied by Debjit Majumder from the spot. However, Dynamos took less than two minutes after that to draw level. Milan Singh cut inside from the left and sent a rifling shot from around 20 yards. The ball was deposited in the top corner. It was a special goal from a player who has been one of the revelations this season.
Despite playing with 10 men, Dynamos became more competitive in the second period. The front three of Kean Lewis, Malouda and Marcelinho constantly kept the Atletico defence guessing through their fluid movement.
But Dynamos fell behind again as, not for the first time this season, Javi Lara struck from distance to hand a crucial advantage to the visiting side. Zambrotta’s men, however, kept fighting and Malouda restored parity three minutes later. Following one of his usual forays in the opposition half, Addy passed the ball to the Frenchman who found himself under the severe attention of two defenders. However, a determined turn ensured the opponents were shaken off in the box and Malouda placed the ball home. After not scoring in his first 24 ISL appearances, he has three goals in his last two matches.
Dynamos could have still lost the game but defender Jose Arroyo skied over from eight yards when presented with a golden opportunity in the third minute of added time. Eventually, the home team was able to get a point which pleased Zambrotta. Dynamos remain on top and there’s nothing to suggest his chosen formation of 4-1-4-1 will be altered. Ahead of Sunday’s match, the Italian had stressed that the strategy and system which has done wonders for his team will remain the same. It’s the players coming into the side who will have to adapt themselves to his plans.
But Zambrotta revealed after the draw with Atletico that some of his plans remain open to change. Marcelinho had missed a penalty against the same opposition the last time they met, which resulted in a loss for Dynamos. On Sunday, Malouda took the spot kick and missed too. Zambrotta was keen to stress that Marcelinho remains the designated penalty taker and he would like him to continue. But the change was made on Sunday because Malouda felt confident and the Italian manager had no qualms about the Frenchman’s desire to take the initative.
However, the first-half display did worry Zambrotta. He acknowledged that Dynamos bowed to the pressure in the first half, as compared to other matches. “We were pushed deep, so the pitch got stretched for us,” he added. But despite being forced to play a 4-4-1 formation in the second period, Zambrotta was pleased with the show of character by his charges who were made to cover a lot of ground.
In terms of their semifinal hopes, Dynamos have another point now. With four games to go, plenty of ground has been made up. Six points out of the remaining 12 will definitely book a spot in the last four for Dynamos. As the draw on Sunday showed, there’s no reason to doubt the side’s credentials. Although Atletico was undefeated by Zambrotta’s men over the two fixtures, the latter continues to play like the best team in the tournament. Dynamos’ prospects shine brightly still.