Mumbai City FC’s third match turned out to be their best yet, despite holding onto dear life at the end of the match. Alexandre Guimaraes' side are still the table toppers with seven points in three matches, but should have been at nine points at the end of the 90 minutes against Atletico de Kolkata at Mumbai's Andheri Sports Complex on Tuesday.
The problem with ISL 2016 is that teams have a certain plan to attack against another team or counter the opposition’s threat but these plans get waylaid after the first 20-30 minutes. In the Mumbai-Kolkata match, the first half witnessed what was easily the best football played in the league so far.
From the get-go, both teams were looking to attack and a flurry of crosses in the opening minutes made it obvious that the star players Diego Forlan and Helder Postiga weren't being missed at all.
Both coaches had to think of ways to create chances, with their main strikers, Postiga and Forlan, injured. They started out with highly attacking formations. The different ways the two coaches approached the problem of missing their key attackers was fascinating to watch.
Atletico de Kolkata modified their regular 4-4-2 and instead played a 4-2-4 which meant that Mumbai’s defence would have to stretch out because of the added pressure of having to defend against four players in the final third. Midfielders Pronay Haldar and Sehtaj Singh would constantly have to support their fullbacks on one-on-one situations and thus the formation seemed like a nightmare for the opposition defence - on paper.
This was made obvious when Kolkata’s defenders kept looking for their wingers by pinging long balls into the opposition half. While most of these long balls reached their desired mark, Mumbai City FC left back Sena Ralte was excellent in not letting this plan of Atletico materialise. He constantly picked Sameehg Doutie’s pockets and was one of the top performers of the match.
Mumbai, on the other hand, had to deal with the cards dealt to them. With no striker in hand, after Forlan’s knock, coach Guimaraes decided to play 4-3-3 with attacking midfielders Leo Costa, Matias Defederico and Boithang Haokip making up their front line.
Superlatives cannot describe Matias Defederico. He was once again the best player on the pitch. Three clear chances created in the first ten minutes showed why the Argentine is a cut above the rest in the ISL. His passing was incisive and his goal a clinical finish. He ran the offence for Mumbai on Tuesday and has been the player of the tournament until now.
Other than Defederico, Haokip was Forlan’s replacement and early signs show that he is a player to watch out for. His runs were complemented by Defederico’s passes and it was his shot off the bar that signalled Mumbai’s dominance in the first half.
The second half, however, was far more subdued for Mumbai. ATK coach Jose Molina immediately changed his formation and added more meat to his midfield. This reduced the influence of Mumbai’s attacking midfielders and put more pressure on their defensive midfielders.
This pressure clearly took its toll as Halder received marching orders after a second yellow card. He should have been booked earlier though and in a rough match, was one of the nastiest tacklers on the pitch.
Atletico won the midfield battle in the second half but were fortunate to get a goal after a Javi Lara long ranger deflected off Jackichand Singh’s foot to go into the net. Javi in particular was instrumental in organising the Atletico midfield. He showed his astuteness and knew exactly when to pass and when to hold back, something that experience teaches a player. The Atletico side had moments of individual quality but could not sustain that for long periods.
In their next match, Mumbai City FC will face Kerala Blasters FC at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi. Three points away from home would effectively mark Mumbai as favorites to win this season’s title.