A 45th minute penalty from Iain Hume in the first leg proved to be decisive as Atletico de Kolkata booked a place in the 2016 Indian Super League final with a 3-2 aggregate win over Mumbai City FC. Hume's strike from six yards, that came at the end of goal-filled 45 minutes, was followed by three barren halves of football – which had moments that had as big a bearing on the game as the Canadian's winner.
Mumbai City FC, before Tuesday's game, had scored seven goals in their last three matches at home and hence would have fancied their chances of overturning the one-goal deficit against Atletico. But a red card to influential skipper Diego Forlan in the 74th minute of the first leg dented a severe blow to Mumbai's chances of doing so. While Mumbai ensured there was no further damage done in terms of the scoreline after going down to ten men, their chances had certainly taken a huge hit.
The way the second leg panned out further highlighted the importance of Forlan to Mumbai's system. The home side struggled to break down Atletico, who played with ten men for an entire half. More significantly, they never looked like making their numerical advantage count.
The absence of the Uruguayan meant coach Alexander Guimaraes had to alter the team combination that had brought him huge success in recent weeks. As expected, the flamboyant Sony Norde replaced Forlan in the side and unlike previously, when he was used as a centre forward, Norde operated in his natural wide left position.
Sunil Chhetri played upfront and Matias Defederico occupied the right flank. In earlier games, Forlan and Chhetri often switched roles during games making it hard for the opposition teams to mark them. But on Tuesday, Mumbai had to go in with a more rigid front three thanks to it's forwards' inability to operate equally effectively in different roles. Neither Norde nor Defederico could play to the best of their abilities in the center forward role, which meant Chhetri couldn't quite drift in the forward areas as he so effectively does.
In addition, Guimaraes, who seemed keen on keeping the back door shut, opted for solidity over dynamism in central midfield. The Costa Rican chose a midfield three comprising of Kriztian Vadocz, Gerson Viera and Leo Costa. The Brazilian Cafu, who was seen playing in the midfield three in recent games, was relegated to the bench.
To Guimaraes' misfortune, Leo Costa had a very quiet evening which made his selection over the in-form Cafu look a bit silly. Costa, who was in-charge of sparking the Mumbai attacks from midfield, failed to link up with the front three on a regular basis. Vadocz, who has shown plenty of attacking intent this season, played as the holding midfielder on Tuesday, further minimising their threat from that area.
To their credit though, Mumbai started very brightly, straightaway pinning Atletico back in their own box. The visitors were set up to press Mumbai and suffocate them for space and that plan didn't quite work at the start as Molina's men struggled on the ball. In the sixth minute, Chhetri squandered a great chance to level the tie when he was through on goal. He fired his shot too close to Debjit Majumder, allowing him to make a save when the goal appeared to be at the Indian captain's mercy.
It was a huge moment in the game as the goal could have sparked the Mumbai forward line into life and put severe pressure on the visitors. Later in the 43rd minute, Atletico's one-goal advantage seemed a lot more thinner when Robert Lalthlamuana was given his marching orders for a second yellow card.
Even without Forlan in the opposite side, it was a huge ask for Atletico to go a half of football, away from home, without conceding. However the visitors spotted a chink in Mumbai's armour. The hosts were brilliant with their build-up, but appeared short of ideas once they reached the Atletico box. Molina perfectly set his team up to maximise their opponent's weakness in the second half.
The visitors, after going down to ten men, got the license to completely sit back and try and conjure up something on the break. The Spaniard instructed his back four and his central midfield to shore up the central area of the park, thus making it nearly impossible for the hosts to carve them open through the middle. Only a combination of an inch perfect pass, an even more perfect run and an accurate finish would have breached Atletico defense through the centre. Unfortunately for Mumbai, the person who could do all of that was sitting in the stands, serving a suspension.
Molina's men were very happy to surrender the wide areas to Mumbai to ensure they always stayed compact defensively, a ploy used so successfully by the likes of Inter Milan and Chelsea against Barcelona. Playing a 4-3-3 system, Mumbai lacked a target man that the formation so badly craves for. So whenever Mumbai managed to get wide and put in the crosses, one of the defensive midfielders dropped back in defence, making it a back five for the visitors.
The Atletico defence had little problems in clearing those crosses with the likes of Chhetri providing little aerial threat against visitors' tall central defenders. With Forlan's absence there was great rigidity in the way Mumbai attacked. Thus they couldn't drag the Atletico defenders out of their positions with their movement and Molina's men, despite being down to ten men, had a field day.
With their crossing resulting in little effect, Mumbai tried to play little one-twos at the edge of the penalty area as the time ticked by, but only managed to run into the compact Atletico rearguard who showed great discipline and composure. In the last few minutes, it was evident that the hosts had run out of ideas and had little composure on the ball. Despite getting into some decent positions late in the game, the hosts either lacked a killer pass, or a lethal finish.
Another aspect which hurt Guimaraes' men was the hesitance of his central midfielders to make runs into the box just to add up to their numbers there. They were hardly decisive in possession and spent large parts of the evening finding each other with square passes, as the Atletico back line played audience to what was a sight of much delight – to see Mumbai play in front of them rather than behind.
The game ended on the worst possible note as a brawl marred the evening. Mumbai City's Thiago Cunha kicked out at an Atletico player and it summed up the frustration among the Mumbai ranks. This was another area where they missed their captain badly. Mumbai at times were too desperate to get that elusive goal and ended up losing their cool, just at the right moment.
The game was always on knife edge and Mumbai required cool heads at the time. Forlan's presence might have provided that calming influence on the hosts which might have seen them over the line. But without him, they struggled to find any kind of balance in the team and were made to pay a heavy price by Atletico, who were extremely efficient in their functioning.
“I think in crucial moments, these kinds of players (like Forlan) can help the guys on the pitch to be a little cool. He has contributed well throughout the season,” Mumbai's coach Guimaraes told reporters after the game, when asked to analyse the impact of the Uruguayan forward's absence.
What was alarming for Mumbai was the fact that they failed to make anything of their numerical advantage. The hosts seemed more dangerous against the Atletico eleven and the visiting coach Molina revealed that the red card might have been a blessing in disguise for his side.
“To me, to be honest, it is always better to play with 11 players than 10 and today maybe with 10 players we were stronger in defence and Mumbai didn’t have a lot of chances through our defence.” Molina told the media after the game.
Despite their exit, Mumbai did have a quite a good season and coach Guimaraes felt the club could learn a lot out of this campaign and be better equipped for the seasons to come.
“The organisation have to learn for next season, like we had issues regarding some Bengaluru FC players and then Gaston Sangoy got injured, so the organisation has to analyse very well as to what we have done that took us to the semifinal and what they have to do to get the future team to the semifinal and the final,” he said before signing off.
There are few teams in the world that can actually replace Diego Forlan and hence Mumbai City FC can empathised with for missing their captain in such a crucial game, but if they might have had another out and out number nine in the team, they might just have been on the plane to Kochi.
Unfortunately there is place for just one 'might' in football, and that's the one which Atletico showed on Tuesday.
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Updated Date: Dec 14, 2016 11:42:13 IST