Delhi is smokey. Delhi is hazey. The visibility at times is atrocious. As evening falls, hazard lights are advised. And all this percolated down to the football.
At times, it was difficult to see the other end of the stands at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium. At times, it seemed like both teams were playing with their guards on. And then, one went missing. It was almost the perfect magic trick. Smoke, lights, cue up drums.
One Kerala team goes into half-time. Another comes out.
If Steve Coppell was the sort, he would take a page out of Jose Mourinho’s book, and call last night’s second half performance what it was — the performance from a summer friendly. Except, there is no space for summer friendlies in the packed Indian Super League (ISL) schedule. Not with the business end of the season now upon us.
First of course, Coppell may question his own team selection. Dropping Aaron Hughes — especially before a guaranteed absence for the international friendlies — made no sense. And, bringing in Ishfaq Ahmed for Mohammed Rafi even less so. The only way any of it made sense was that, Kerala were happy with their travels on the road and wanted that point and an unbeaten record intact. So park the team bus.
In the reverse fixture at Kochi last month, any criticism for being overtly cautious and defensive could be squarely levelled at Gianlucca Zambrotta’s team. They went there searching for a point, and they came away with one. Last night, Coppell’s team lined up with a similar objective, but without any plan of putting it into action.
Sure, their defensive numbers rack up. They made twice the number of interceptions, played almost half the number of passes, and were content with very little to do with the ball. But, organised in banks of four, they looked in disarray for a large part of the game.
A part of this was down to Delhi’s marquee player. At Kochi, Florent Malouda had been more restrained. Stuck to the flanks, he was easily kept in check by both the wing backs. In a more free floating role, he was almost impossible to contain. Josu was caught between reigning him or Richard Gadze for a large part of the evening, and often let Gadze go. On the other side, devoid of speedier support, Sandesh Jhingan was stranded with the Frenchman and Kean Lewis.
Nonetheless Kerala escaped the first half unscathed. Despite the low possession and the abject passing, they had been the ones closest to scoring. Six inches away, actually. If Boris Kadio’s improvised header had been half a foot to the right of the upright, this could have been a completely different result.
Or maybe not. Maybe they would have come out looking, absurd anyway. Their football looked laboured in the second half, and despite the goal keeping gaffes that were the centrepiece of both goals — Sandip Nandy’s positioning for Marcelinho’s header very questionable — it had long seemed like it was coming.
Their defence — the one part of their team that had been dependable and consistent — looked like a mistake waiting to happen. They were too high at times, too deep at others, and napping once too often.
The centre of the defence is often the one part of the field managers rarely like to shuffle with. Solid teams are built around these men. Think for example, Sol Campbell-Kolo Toure from Arsene’s Invincibles. Or Nemanja Vidic-Rio Ferdinand at that United. And of course, Mats Hummels-Neven Subotic of that breath-taking Dortmund.
They have a first pair, and then a back up second pair. Rarely is a new man thrown in.
Cedric Hengbart has probably been more vital to this defence than Hughes and has been a part of every game. On Saturday, paired with Ndoye, he looked brittle. It could’ve been fatigue, but on glance, there seemed to be a problem with the coordination. This was a selection that Coppell seemed to have erred on.
Jhingan and Hengbart had previously played at the centre of the defence together. In fact they had played against Delhi at Kochi, partnering up at the heart of the back four. It would’ve made complete sense for Coppell to have stuck to that, rather than bring a new man, with game rust in. Pratik Chaudhari would have worked perfectly at right-back. He is a man less afflicted with an attacker’s instinct and would’ve stuck to his line perfectly. They could’ve rustled up that point, if they had been more composed.
The loss is bit of a problem for Kerala. The pack at the top is moving away. FC Goa’s revival looks non-commital and at times forced. FC Pune City aren’t really too interested. Kerala look like the ones stuck in the middle. They aren’t top drawer yet. But they aren’t going away either.
In the season they made the finals, they were in a similar position at this stage of the season. They had nine points when they went to Mumbai. That night they sneaked away with a point, and then went on to take four wins from their final six fixtures to storm into the play-offs.
No more space for summer friendlies and half-time Houdinis. This time they will have to better that.