Ten-man Delhi Dynamos twice came from behind to hold on to their unbeaten home record in a 2-2 draw against Atletico de Kolkata at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Sunday.
The Dynamos, undefeated since their 1-0 loss in the reverse fixture, came into this crucial match with injuries to Sana Singh and Richard Gadze. Manager Gianluigi Zambrotta opted to start with Badara Badji upfront in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Kean Lewis, Florent Malouda, Milan Singh and Marcelinho in a four-pronged attacking midfield and Emerson Moura to shield the defence.
Kolkata also rang in a couple of changes, with Tiri and Jewel Shaikh replacing Arnab Mondal and Stephen Pearson to the team that went down against FC Pune City.
The visitors took the lead in the 17th minute, when Iain Hume latched on to a Sameehg Doutie through ball and calmly slotted it past Antonio Doblas. Dynamos responded immediately, with Marcelinho in particular coming close to an equaliser. The Brazilian, top scorer of this year's Indian Super League (ISL), has made all the difference this year for Zambrotta's side. On Sunday, it was his movement between the channels that perturbed the Atletico defence.
Kolkata were handed another advantage when Badji was sent off for a deliberate handball. The 22-year-old Senegalese was entrusted the responsibility of leading the line in Gadze's absence and failed miserably — picking up two yellow cards for completely avoidable offences.
Florent Malouda was pushed forward as a result, with Lewis switching to the right flank. With the exception of his late equaliser, the Frenchman was mostly ineffective and didn't stretch the Atletico defence. Malouda repeatedly drifted wide towards the left and Delhi Dynamos, without an extra man, had nobody to attack the ball in the final third.
The Lions' first goal of the night came through Milan Singh's first ISL goal — a stunning strike from distance which rocketed its way past an outstretched Debjit Majumder. But Javier Lara soon restored Atletico's lead with an equally sumptuous long-range shot. With the visitors pressing for another goal, Malouda equalised on the other end, taking advantage of a lapse in concentration on Tiri's part.
"I think we did a great job in the first half. We played well and scored one. In the second half, after the sending off, I think we were a little scared and tried to ensure we don't get booked by the referee. We also didn't defend with the same intensity and allowed Delhi to move around with the ball and they scored two goals," said ATK manager Jose Molina, chalking down the dropped points to a lack of intensity from his players.
As has been the trend in almost all their fixtures, Atletico once again outshot their opponents by a considerable margin, but failed to secure three points. Not only did they dominate possession, but were rarely outplayed by Delhi Dynamos, to produce a result that Zambrotta said was "like a victory" for the home side.
The concern for Kolkata is that this has been repeated often enough this season. Molina's side have now dropped eight points in their last four matches — with only five more matches to go. Atletico are no longer assured of a place in the top four. For a club of their stature and squad strength, their performances have been pretty underwhelming in crucial matches, the only exceptions being the second-half showings in away games at Mumbai and NorthEast United FC.
The responsibility must lie on Molina for Atletico's lack of precision in finishing chances, a casual attitude while defending leads and letting the opposition away in spite of having the upper hand in terms of personnel. The signs were present since their opening fixture of the season, and with the league already entering its business end, it is astounding to see that Atletico are yet to rectify their shortcomings.
Three of their last five matches are at home (where they have won only once this season), and with all clubs still in with a chance of qualifying for the knock-out stages, Atletico must take maximum available points from those three. Unless Molina's men hit their stride soon, the pre-tournament favorites could miss out on semi-finals for the first time in three seasons.