ISL 2016: Kerala Blasters beat Mumbai City FC, break winless streak in most dominant way possible
For Kerala, breaking their goalless streak was always going to be the first target. And it came against Mumbai City FC, who were at second place before Friday evening
It doesn't matter how they are scored, as long as they are, and they win you the game. Sounds like a bad adaptation of an iconic Gabriel Garcia Marquez quote, but it's true.
A scuffed shot, a blinded defender, a smart finish, an outbreak of noise. That's how we will remember the winner. In retrospect — and eventually as a statistic — it will be remembered as Michael Chopra breaking his (and his team's) goalless streak. How it was done won't matter.
Breaking streaks is always a tough job. Teams on winning streaks are tough to beat because of the extreme confidence they display even when they are down. The reverse is also true. For Kerala, scorers of the 23rd goal of ISL 2016 — and in case you have been living, eating and sleeping under a rock, their first — breaking their streak was always going to be the first box to check off their list. Consider it done. And it came against Mumbai City FC, who were at second place before Friday evening, with two wins and a draw in their first three matches.
Steve Coppell's side were dominant in the first half in a way that everyone was left shaking their heads at the goalless scoreline when the whistle blew for the break. Lining up with a five-man midfield, the Blasters blew apart the visitors and their three men in the centre of the park.
They had a shot on target after just 28 seconds, and then a half-chance, five minutes later. It is hard to remember a period in the first half when Mumbai actually had the ball and wanted to use it.
If you experienced a slight sinking feeling at that moment, and felt even this game was going to turn against the hosts, then you would have been justified. You'd have been cynical and unfair, but justified.
Mumbai came to Kochi, almost perfectly resembling Gianluca Zambrotta's Delhi Dynamos from Blasters' last encounter. They too sat deep and declined to play any attacking, adventurous football, although the latter were perhaps forced by Kerala to do so, and it wasn't part of their original design.
Kerala were a menace in the first half, Kervens Belfort and Sandesh Jhingan the tormentors-in-chief, the former constantly cutting in from the left to drag Mumbai in, and the latter tirelessly overlapping Rafique on the right, to open them out.
But again, it was their quality in front of goal that let them down. Rafi, who started as a lone striker, tamely headed Belfort's cross for Roberto Volpatto to collect. And then Chopra had a déjà vu moment — almost to the minute — meeting a long pass by Jossu, collecting it perfectly and hitting the target, only to see it saved by Velpatto at the near post.
Mumbai coach Alexandre Guimaraes made a change at halftime, bringing on Jackichand Singh on for David Lalrinmuana, perhaps trying to inject a bit of pace in their midfield, and to control the Blasters' full backs, who had had a free reign all evening.
Within a minute, however, his team were lucky to even have 11 men on the pitch; Facundo Cardozo escaping a red after blatantly denying Rafique a free run at goal.
If Coppell finds something to complain about, it should be the standard of refereeing in the game. Cards or not, there were quite clearly several occasions when the men in charge seemed to have goodwill rather than safety and rule enforcement on their minds. It is never good to see an unevenly matched game of football, or even an official constantly stopping play, but at times a strict word and a couple of bookings do temper the game down. The referee's leniency in the opening half gave way to several needless fouls that went — because of the occasion and the scoreline — unpunished in the second.
Coppell's other big concern would be regarding the manner in which his team lost the whip once they scored. Perhaps having been winless for ages had something to do with it, but once they scored, they were suddenly at the back end of an open match, making errors and looking clueless. It could also be that having looked down the barrel all match long, Mumbai finally found their form and went hunting for the equaliser.
Norde almost did give Mumbai that equaliser, and if it wasn't for Aaron Hughes' huge boots, that could've been that and the streak would've continued for the Blasters. The Haitian's introduction forced Jhingan to consider the defensive part of his job more seriously, and the replay of him in a split with Norde dancing away is not one he would want to watch again. To his credit, however, he did keep a much tighter check on his man after that.
Kerala are on an upward curve now. All managers talk about progress game to game, but Coppell's would not be idle talk. He has experimented with his formation in every game and one still cannot say if this is his best.
At times on Friday, Kerala actually looked brilliant, playing like a team at the top of the table. One move involving Belfort, Chopra and the invisibly brilliant Azarack Muhamat — whose final shot fell straight to Volpato — was out of a La Liga drawing board. But at others, and specially the moments immediately after scoring, they looked fragile. Not of body but of mind.
It could be the streak, but that has finally been done away with. Kerala have played more than half their home fixtures and have four points to show for it. Now they hit the road with a win under their belt. If they can get back some points when they are back in Kochi next month, the noise in the stadium will be unbelievable.
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