Delhi Dynamos did what they do; Gianluca Zambrotta's side scored three goals away from home on Friday night. Unfortunately, however, their defence had an evening to forget, as the table toppers lost 3-4 to FC Pune City. The result is unlikely to have a significant impact in the context of the campaign as a whole, but it will be a match that will be remembered for some time to come, such were the turns and twists it took.
Zambrotta fielded his favoured 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 formation once again, but there were four changes to the team which had bravely fought for a draw against Atletico de Kolkata, despite being forced to play about 50 minutes with 10 men. Spaniards Marcos Tebar and Ruben Gonzalez Rocha replaced Milan Singh and Ibrahima Niasse; David Addy, whose natural position is left-back, played in mid-field as replacement for Badara Badji. This meant Florent Malouda became part of the front three, alongside Kean Lewis and Marcelinho.
First-choice goalkeeper Toni Doblas also made way for Soram Poirei. The 23-year-old goalkeeper from Imphal caught the eye for his incident-filled performance. Poirei made some crucial saves, despite being beaten four times on the night. The custodian's major contribution was the penalty he saved to deny Mohamed Sissoko in the first half.
Lalchhawnkima, who was being terrorised on the right flank, lost his bearings as he fouled Anibal Rodriguez in the box midway through the first half. There were no doubts over the penalty, but Sissoko was a surprise choice to take it. Poirei rightly guessed the direction to palm the tame shot away.
The miss hurt Pune's growing confidence and Dynamos responded. Pune goalkeeper Apoula Bete came up trumps in two one-on-one situations, Malouda and Marcelinho the men he denied.
The deadlock was broken just before half-time, as Kean Lewis calmly finished Emerson Moura's cutback. This was the Indian forward's fourth goal this season, better than any of his compatriots. In previous weeks, Zambrotta had demanded Lewis step up and do justice to his potential. If his recent form is a reliable indicator, the 24-year-old has taken heed of the manager's words.
Going into the second period, there was a sense that Dynamos had established control over the match. But Pune clearly needed the win more than Delhi. And it showed in the latter half, which brought six goals. Following the penalty, Lalchhawnkima and Souvik Chakraborty swapped flanks, to give the former some relief. But Dynamos' defence collapsed within an eight-minute period to hand Pune three goals.
The first two of them arrived from free-kicks. Dynamos' players could not be blamed for those goals, but the side has ridden away phases of pressure in the past through a resilient approach. On Friday, they could not hold on. The third goal was particularly painful. A hurried throw from Poirei was miscontrolled by Rocha and it ended up in Anibal's possession. The Pune forward wasted little time in slamming the ball home from distance.
After the match, Lewis admitted the hosts had caught him and his teammates by surprise. Zambrotta also acknowledged that he may need to work more with his team in the defensive phase. "This team likes to play (attacking) football. We want to be very attacking. Unfortunately, in the last two matches we have conceded a few more goals than we would have liked, so we would have to go back and review our team and check what is going wrong," said the Italian manager.
His pre-match words also echoed strongly once the Dynamos fell 1-3 behind. Ahead of the game, Zambrotta had expressed satisfaction with the fight shown by his side in the 2-2 draw with Atletico. "It also showed we are mentally strong and that we have the right character and we will not give up easily. This is a very big positive for me as a coach."
The fight definitely remained in the Dynamos as they twice reduced the deficit. But the push for the equaliser at 2-3 left the visitors open at the back, something which Lenny Rodrigues exploited towards the end. Another goal was scored by Dynamos immediately but it was not enough to prevent their only second defeat of the season.
Dynamos will relinquish their lead atop the ISL table if there is a winner in Saturday's clash between Mumbai City FC and Kerala Blasters. However, that would mean very little for Zambrotta and his team, as they still remain favourites for a top-four finish. With over a week to go until Dynamos' next game — their final home match against FC Goa on 27 November — the Italian manager has enough time to work with his side.
With 21 goals in 11 matches, the team is by far the most successful unit in the final third. Atletico and Pune follow next with 12 goals apiece. But it is their defence which requires attention. For now, the performance on Friday can be brushed off as an aberration. Dynamos have earned that luxury. Nothing to worry about. Not yet.