FC Pune City lived to fight another day, somehow surviving waves of attack from Delhi Dynamos to pick up their third successive draw. The result helped neither side, and both finished the day without any movement on the points table.
The third season of the Indian Super League (ISL) 2016 has been a drag thus far; only 46 goals have been scored in 24 matches, somewhat proving the point. A handful of games aside, entertainment and goals have been in short supply. And there was little change in the running narrative on Thursday.
Delhi Dynamos headed into the game as the league's joint top scoring team, and the record was probably playing on Pune City manager Antonio Habas' mind. Pune lined up with a back three of Eduardo, Gouramangi Singh and Dharmaraj Ravanan, and took to the field with an inherent defensive look about them.
Set up to play in a 3-4-2-1 formation with the ball and a 5-4-1 off it, the Stallions looked vulnerable to all Delhi attacks early in the game despite their solid-looking system. They could barely string two passes together, and frequent possession giveaways didn't help them settle.
Their central midfield pair of Mohamed Sissoko and Jonatan Lucca were outnumbered by Delhi's trio of Florent Malouda, Milan Singh and Memo. Malouda, who started in an advanced midfield role before dropping deeper, started building attacks and was a particular threat throughout the first half.
Gaps opened between the lines, as Pune City failed to track the movements of the Delhi players, and the away side gradually dropped back until there was no more space to do so. This extreme negativity from Habas’ men was mostly enforced by Delhi's quick attacks and elusive movement.
It wasn't until Eduardo moved up to a holding midfield role that Pune City had a break from the torrent of Delhi attacks. It was only thanks to some fine work by goalkeeper Edel Bete and their good fortune that they were in the game. Bete, a two-time ISL winner, made six saves in the first half alone, at times keeping Dynamos at bay single-handedly.
The Stallions were lethargic and second best to every loose ball and second ball. They lacked Delhi's energy, and were run ragged as a result. When they did take the lead, in first-half stoppage time, it came as a big surprise. Jesus Tato's desire and work-rate have been top notch this season, but his failure to score a goal had been a concern for Pune. Tato, just like Anibal Zurdo in the previous game, showed an opportunistic streak to net his first ISL goal. From a looping cross that was nothing but awkward, Tato timed his jump to perfection to head home the opener.
Tato's goal was the sucker-punch Delhi didn't expect. The goal exposed Delhi’s wastefulness in front of goal, and suddenly Pune City looked like a more efficient, clinical side.
As expected, Habas resisted adding a holding midfielder in the second-half, as the Stallions parked the bus with 10 men behind the ball. Malouda got Eduardo's close attention and wasn't as effective, while Delhi's wingers were getting far less space behind Pune City's full-backs. The onus to attack was on the hosts, while the visitors plugged their defensive gaps.
When Milan Singh's 79th minute equaliser for Delhi came, it prevented a Pune City heist; the goal coming from a free-kick which caught the Stallions' defence out. For once, Edel failed to react. It was the least Delhi deserved for their cavalier approach.
The visitors almost succeeded in turning a game of percentages into a smash-and-grab win. But without any invention or adventure, Pune City's road to the play-offs looks difficult. They were overrun in midfield, and barely progressed the ball. Their lack of bravado made the game a one-sided affair for long stretches.
But Habas' tactical acumen meant the Stallions were more compact in midfield following Eduardo's first half switch. It was a learning curve for Pune City, and in retrospect, a 1–1 draw against a superior Delhi side is a good result for them. Next up for Pune is a home game against bottom-placed side FC Goa. Two thirds of the games in this year's tournament have ended in a 1–1 or 1–0 result. The lack of free-flowing football is evident, as Habas' men showed on the night.
But six points from six games is a measly return, and similar disjointed performances would amount to very little if Pune City harbour serious hopes of making it past the league phase. They were lucky against Delhi, as they were against Goa earlier this season. They could only go so far riding on good fortune, but a silver lining is their strikers have now scored twice in two games. Building on that is imperative from now on.
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Updated Date: Oct 28, 2016 11:28:16 IST