On Saturday night in Guwahati, Mumbai City FC showed championship-winning pedigree, as they continued their incredible ability to win away from home — this time at the expense of a NorthEast United FC that is clearly in the midst of a slump.
The visitors started the game with five defenders on the pitch and marquee player Diego Forlan the only striker, who was ably supported on the flanks by Sony Norde and Jackichand Singh. Both sides were nervous in their first touches. Mumbai's Leo Costa, who scored a stunner in their last game against Chennaiyin FC, made some poor connections in the first few minutes, but settled into a rhythm as time progressed.
Jackichand was the goalscorer who claimed the eventual winner for Mumbai. But it was actually a gift from NorthEast United FC, that allowed Guimaraes' men to take all three points. NEUFC's goalkeeper Wellington Gomes had a moment of madness. The Brazilian cut past Norde, but instead of quietly reveling in that moment and clearing the ball, he decided to hold on for just a second too long. Norde returned and tackled the 'keeper. The ensuing loose ball was calmly slotted into the net by Jackichand.
A positive for Mumbai to take from that goal was the confidence boost that Jackichand would have got after his first ISL goal of this season. Immediately, his touch became much more assured and he came further inwards of the field, making his presence known and giving some Indian flavor to a Mumbai attack that relies heavily on its foreign players.
However, a major problem that Mumbai continue to face is their positioning. While the defensive line likes to stay high up in their half, their midfield is rarely adventurous and prefers to hang back rather than go forward and create opportunities. This creates bottlenecks in the centre of the park and doesn't allow defenders to come into play.
Lucian Goian, an excellent defender, was either making short passes or punting up the ball up the field. Positioning the midfield 10 yards further ahead would mean they hold on to their defensive solidarity, but would also give options to the attacking trio, should the need arise.
And coach Alexandre Guimaraes clearly thought the same, as he brought on Sehnaj Singh in the second half for Anwar Ali. Granted, Ali was taken off because of an injury, but the introduction of a defensive midfielder worked for the team and from this point on, Mumbai looked far more comfortable on the ball.
Credit to Sehnaj — a player, who along with Pronay Halder — can well be one of the best defensive midfielders in the country. He is assured in his tackling and was constantly hounding NEUFC's Japanese playmaker Katsumi Yusa, who was looking to pump up the crowd and look for that equaliser.
Goian has proven to be a rock at the back. A no-nonsense defender, he likes to win headers and flies into tackles and wins most of them. His assured performances at the back have given Mumbai almost no reason to worry, and it shows in the amount of goals that the league toppers have let in this season. Barring a 3-3 draw with Delhi Dynamos, Mumbai's defence is pretty much airtight.
What has been a worry for Mumbai, however, is their ability to fashion chances; and it looks like this will continue to be so for some time. Forlan cut a frustrated figure up front, as the lack of service continued throughout the game. Mumbai's best creative midfielder Matias Defederico had missed the last few games, but made a much-awaited return in the second half as a substitute. He got some good 20 minutes under his belt and even had a brilliant moment where he avoided two NEUFC defenders and took a shot at goal, but the ball drifted slightly off the far post, and the scoreline stayed 1-0.
As has been the case throughout this ISL season, the football wasn't top quality to watch. But both teams found good balance and had moments when they elevated their football to another level.
Three players in particular stood out for their individual quality: NorthEast United FC striker Emiliano Alfaro is a crowd favorite in Guwahati and there is no question why! He was the best Uruguayan on a field that had a legendary name like Diego Forlan on it. Every touch from his boot was created to make space and if NEUFC wanted to get something out of this game, he was their best bet.
Katsumi Yusa was also pivotal; the Japanese player has been playing in the I-League for three years and is very much in tune with the Indian game. His ability to drive play forward and his vision make him a decent if not top-class playmaker. He is yet another crowd favourite in Guwahati and looks to give his all on the field.
While both these NEUFC players were individually brilliant, Mumbai's best performance came from Sehnaj. The midfielder was calm in his tackling and was the vital connector between attack and defence. Mumbai missed his presence in the first half, and once he came on, he proved to be the difference, ensuring the hosts never regained control.