A red card in the first half for an opponent always sparks a little euphoria, but lost in the chaos are the changes both teams undergo once the 22-player equilibrium is disturbed. The affected team naturally become more defensive, while the onus to attack lies on the team having the numbers advantage.
FC Pune City had more than 50 minutes to create and score a goal against NorthEast United’s 10 men, but failed; and 34 minutes after Nirmal Chettri was given his marching orders, Stallions centre-back Eduardo went for an early shower which restored the numerical balance in the game.
What Eduardo’s dismissal after two silly bookings did was it left a big hole in the Stallions’ central defence. With NorthEast adopting a cavalier approach to counter attack with pace and numbers despite being a man down, Pune’s soft belly was exposed as the away side drove at the heart of their opponents’ defence to nick a win that seemed unlikely when Chettri was sent off for a reckless challenge on Anibal Zurdo.
And that was perhaps Zurdo’s only significant contribution to the game. The 33-year-old Mexican might have shown heart, but just a single shot in two games where he has been chosen to lead the line for his team doesn’t cut it.
Zurdo was as static as a centre forward could be; he barely offered himself as a target in crossed ball situations, and while Jesus Tato made lateral dribbles and took on opponents, Zurdo looked to be on a different wavelength from his partner up front.
Stallions manager Antonio Lopez Habas served the third of his four-game touchline ban in this game, and he opted for a similar-looking 3–5–2 setup that served him well in the win over FC Goa last week. Lenny Rodrigues was back into the line-up, while Adinga and Francis Fernandes made their first starts of the season.
With Nelo Vingada’s NorthEast sitting in a compact, low block when out of possession, FC Pune City had difficulties in stretching the Highlanders’ back line. Also the fact that in Emiliano Alfaro, Nico Velez and Holicharan Narzary, the away side had pace to burn on the break, forced the Stallions to play Lenny as an added screen in front of their defence, foregoing the prospect of playing Arata Izumi in attack.
The home side were often languid in possession, their movements ahead of the ball non-existent and ball circulation too slow. Mohamed Sissoko, who made a solid start to life in India, was found wanting when asked to create anything significant, and Jonatan Lucca, man of the match against Goa, was often tasked with breaking the entire NorthEast rearguard on his own.
Even when Pune City made a more attacking switch to a 4–2–3–1 after the break with Arata coming on, NorthEast were the team that created the more clear-cut chances to score.
Any team is only as good as its goalscorers, and Zurdo’s ineptness in front of goal makes it difficult reading for the Punekars. With Tato offering more in his withdrawn role and the likes of Dramane Traore and Gustavo Oberman not seen as better options than Zurdo, FC Pune City must quickly find a solution ahead of their game against Kerala Blasters on Monday.
The sight of Lucca turning on the style looks good, but it doesn’t become better when it is known that he is the only one taking all the shots, and all of them from outside the 18-yard box. Lucca has been a shrewd signing, but FC Pune City need more than a prolific midfielder to upset the order. It is time the likes of Zurdo and Tato start scoring the goals.
With all hopes pinned on putting a better effort this time round than Pune's previous two seasons, Habas’ men have now lost twice on the spin at home. Their next two games are also at home, where they could ill afford to lose any more points if they retain hopes of making it past the league phase.