It was a day of role reversals at the Balewadi Stadium, as FC Goa beat Pune City FC and relegated the hosts to the bottom of the Indian Super League (ISL) 2016 points table. The 1-0 win was Goa's revenge for the 2-1 loss at home to the Stallions earlier this season.
Goa came into the game with zero wins in the first half of the season, but condemned Pune City FC to yet another defeat at home; Antonio Habas' men are without a single win at home in the 2016 campaign.
Pune were one place above Goa on the points table ahead of kick-off and the two teams swapped places at the end of 90 minutes. Goa, who had been outshooting their opponents all season without having much in the way of results, came away with three priceless points despite being outdone by the Stallions in terms of attempts on goal.
It was a combination of poor decision making in the final third and sturdy defending from Goa that shaped the result. That there was barely anything separating the two sides on the night was a fair reflection of their positions on the points table. Only one moment of individual brilliance from Rafael Coelho proved to be the difference.
In what was perhaps a desperate measure to find their second win of the season, Pune City started with three forwards — Anibal Zurdo, Jesus Tato and Dramane Traore. Both Zurdo and Tato had scored in recent games, and merited their selections. Midfielder Lenny Rodrigues came into the side as coach Antonio Habas did away with the back three. Attack seemed to be the chief idea. With Dharmaraj Ravanan serving the first of his two-game suspension, centre-back Augustin Fernandes made his debut.
There was a sense of urgency in Pune's game right from the start, as they looked to exploit the space behind Goa's wing-backs in the opening exchanges. But that urgency exposed a lack of quality from both sides, as frequent turnovers of possession was the theme of the game.
While ball circulation from both teams was better and faster than what we have come to witness on the whole in ISL-3, defence splitting passes or third man runs to disrupt either side's defence were rarely seen. Crosses were easily dealt with, as were the shots. It was no surprise that Pune's first shot on target came directly from a corner, in the 36th minute.
In a game where individual mistakes triggered the best openings, it was clear how once Goa cut down their errors, Pune struggled to create anything of note. Neither Traore nor Zurdo had a shot on goal throughout the game, and it was testament to the away side's greater resolve to hold on to their 1–0 lead.
And it was an individual error from the debutant Augustin that led to the game's only goal. With his teammates well-positioned to cover any Goa attacking development, Augustin's foul on Jofre just in front of the penalty area was ill-advised, and it got punished when Coelho dispatched the resulting free-kick into the top corner.
That was Augustin's only foul in an otherwise solid game, but margins tend to be tight in the bottom reaches of the table. In what has been a season lacking in free-flowing, attacking football, one error in judgment can cost three points, as was proved in this game.
Pune City FC have tried every combination in attack, but are yet to hit the correct notes. They looked determined from the start against Goa, but troubled goalkeeper Laxmikant Kattimani only in the first-half stoppage time. There seems to be no coherent plan in attack, with midfielder Jonatan Lucca perhaps the only player to emerge with any credit in an attacking sense in the game.
Much as it is damning for Habas' men, the league table never lies. Pune City's problems started with Eidur Gudjohnsen's injury in pre-season, and they are yet to be solved. With only two more home games left in the campaign, the Stallions are to find comfort elsewhere, and their hopes of finally securing a playoffs place look all but over.