Mumbai City FC learnt from their errors in their victory over FC Pune City in the previous match, but were still not completely able to erase their issues at home against NorthEast United FC, despite winning through a solitary Diego Forlan penalty.
Coach Alexandre Guimaraes had spoken about the need to defend when the opposition was on the counter after the match against Pune, and Friday’s game started out with a marked change in strategy for the home team.
The opening minutes saw NEUFC come forward with the ball but they were allowed no space to play with as many as eight Mumbai players effectively forming a wall to keep them out (It's the Trump effect, isn’t it?) Clearly the coach had made his point and the emphasis was on keeping it tight at the back. Initially Mumbai were able to hold their defensive line and were aided by a midfield that refused to move out of their own half. One could see Matias Defederico and Diego Forlan lurking around the half-way line, but not cross it once.
But as the game progressed, both teams started moving the ball in their own ways, forward. On a positive note, Mumbai City FC and NorthEast largely refrained from punting the ball up the field, looking for a player to get on the end of a hopeful Hail Mary. The emphasis was on moving the ball ahead without taking too many risks in giving possession away.
Defensively, Mumbai started showing lapses in concentration towards the end of the second half. They should have been punished for their shoddy work at the back when Argentine Nicolas Velez put Japanese winger Katsumi Yusa through, but the ensuing shot flew over the bar in an error that will surely go down as one of the worst misses of the ISL 2016 campaign, if not one of the worst ever.
NorthEast United had another clear cut chance right before the half-time whistle, but the result was the same as before as a last minute tackle put the score at 0-0 at the halfway mark. Clearly NorthEast United were the better team at this point despite the Mumbaikars trying desperately to plug the gaps in their defence.
The other important aspect that coach Guimaraes called on to improve was the quality of chances for Diego Forlan. In their last game, Mumbai were unable to create many from all the pushing and stretching that Forlan was doing to the opposition defence. It was no different this time around as the Uruguayan was once again marked by two players. But his ability on the ball is legendary to such an extent, that he could run forward and create a gap in midfield and the defence of the opposition, thus giving a player like Matias Defederico the time and space to create something.
Defederico in particular deserves special praise for his performances. It’s him, and not Forlan, who has been the best foreign recruit for Mumbai so far this season. One must credit Argentina for giving the world so many tiny, left-footed magicians who can dart in and around players and produce moments of magic at the snap of their fingers.
However, Mumbai City winning a penalty was credit to Forlan hounding the defense and it was an easy clearance that was messed up by the NEUFC boys at the back because of a lack of communication. While Reagen Singh will be blamed for the goal, his back was to Forlan and it was the prerogative of his teammates to shout out the arrival of Forlan. Subrata Pal got his hand to the penalty but was unable to stop the freekick -- a little more resistance from his palm and the proud goalkeeper could have gone home and updated his already long CV with a Forlan penalty save!
An aspect of football that became noticeable in the second half was the gulf in the attacking quality between Mumbai and NorthEast United FC. While Guimaraes’ men struggled to breach the final third of their opposition, NEUFC had many points of attack and it seemed like a matter of when and not if for the Guwahati-based team.
But Mumbai showed resilience and their with their backs to the wall, and held onto a crucial three points. It was especially good for their confidence, as the last few minutes were spent defending three corners with NEUFC goalie Subrata Pal making his way forward and getting tantalisingly close to scoring a header and give the visitors a deserved draw.
The positives that Mumbai City can take from this game is their ability to win ugly. At the end, even the NorthEast United FC coach admitted he’d rather win than say they played better but lost. Other than that, Mumbai can take solace in the fact that almost all areas of their game have improved from the last game. Forlan scoring and Defederico bossing his position is another pat on the back for Mumbai. But there is still plenty of work that needs to be done.
Their next game will be at home against Atletico de Kolkata on 11 October, which could be the acid test for Alexandre Guimaraes’ squad. After all Atletico de Kolkata are one of the most consistent and successful teams in the two-year old league.