The first clean sheet of ISL 2016 still remains elusive for FC Pune City, but Antonio Habas' side finally notched up their first home win of the season on their sixth attempt on Sunday.
A 2-1 win over Atletico de Kolkata helped the Stallions make some ground on the top four, and it was their defensive performance that gives them a reason to be optimistic for the season's final stretch.
FC Pune City perhaps took a cue from FC Goa's performance against them on Thursday. The third season of the ISL has seen solid defensive displays being rewarded, and the Stallions' coach Habas made sure his team didn't allow their opponents a clear route to goal throughout the 90 minutes.
The result? A fine win that was scripted by defensive discipline, desire to work hard, and a clear plan in attack.
Jonatan Lucca was at the centre of every attacking move that Pune launched. The Brazilian has played well despite his team's struggles this season, and once again played a significant role as the link between midfield and attack.
And his teammates in attack – Dramane Traore and Anibal Zurdo – worked their socks off to complement Lucca.
Habas turned to a five-man defence after the loss to Goa in the previous match, as centre-back Eduardo made his return to the side with Jesus Tato dropping out of the eleven. The Equatoguinean has blown hot and cold this season, but his first half goal set the tone for the evening. However, the 33-year-old sustained an injury and was substituted immediately after his goal, which forced his side into a tactical switch.
As Eduardo made the trip to the hospital, Pune City reverted to a back four, but the primary focus remained intact. Atletico's designs in attack often revolve around their tricky wingers and full-backs, hence the home side pressed well in the wide channels to prevent the 2014 champions from building up a head of steam.
Both Zurdo and Traore pressed their nearest full-backs on separate occasions, which led to the Pune City wing-backs pressing further. It didn't allow Atletico to create a meaningful opening. Borja Fernández pinged a few long balls upfront that were easily dealt with, and any gaps in the Orange-Purple's defensive third were plugged.
One of the three centre-backs did the covering to start with, and after the switch to 4-1-4-1, Mohamed Sissoko dropped deeper in a holding midfield role to maintain Pune City's stability at the back, which was also helped by the authority of goalkeeper Edel Bete.
Consequently, Lucca and his fellow midfield runner Lenny Rodrigues could support the strikers ahead, or move the ball forward better, often finding the wing-backs in space out wide. One such movement early in the second half yielded the penalty from which Zurdo scored his second goal of the season and his team's second goal of the match.
And in spite of having their lead cut by half following Iain Hume's 69th minute-goal off a penalty rebound, Pune City saw off their opponents with relative ease. There was no grandstand finish, and a few set-pieces aside, Atletico barely troubled Bete.
Next up for the Stallions is the Maharashtra derby with league leaders Mumbai City FC on Thursday. Habas' men will understandably be the underdogs against the high-flying Mumbai, whose rise to the top can be attributed to their four clean sheets, which is the highest number of clean sheets in the league so far.
As shown by Mumbai City FC, keeping out opponents rather than outscoring them has been the key in the third season of the ISL. Despite the Atletico match being Pune's second last at home, Habas's side showed signs of learning a lesson and working on their defensive shape.
Whether a repeat of that in their next six matches takes the Stallions into the playoffs remains to be seen, but there was a sense that it is better late than never in the FC Pune City camp after the win, their first in a month.