For the second straight Indian Super League (ISL) season, Mumbai City FC left Kolkata with all three points. But unlike in 2015, they did so with a disciplined and pragmatic effort this time. Neutrals might have seen the match as a dull, boring and uneventful game of football, but for Mumbai City FC, it was a perfect away performance.
Alexandre Guimares' side were winless in four games, and were missing several key players through injury. Moreover, in Kolkata, they were up against a team that was yet to taste defeat this season. Few would have blamed Guimares had he set his team up not to get beaten.
Atletico de Kolkata coach Jose Molina had hinted at Helder Postiga's involvement in the match, but the Portuguese striker could only make the bench. For Mumbai, Uruguayan Diego Forlan did feature in the starting XI, albeit not as main striker. The early exchanges made it clear that Forlan was employed as a No 10, behind Sony Norde, who assumed a central role.
Molina had spoken of a plan to stop Mumbai's two main attacking players — Forlan and Norde, but with Guimares tweaking his starting XI to accommodate a long injury list, Molina's plan went out of the window. Their makeshift strike force ironically did the trick for the visitors, as they started the better of the two sides. Playing in the hole behind the striker, Forlan was able to get a lot more involved, and use his experience and quality to hold Mumbai's play together.
In the eighth minute, Forlan was at the heart of a neatly constructed counterattacking move. The Uruguayan collected the ball at the halfway line after some good work from Lalhmangaihsanga Ralte, before making a neat one-two with Britto Alves. who was then able to play Norde in space ahead of Atletico's goal. The Haitian didn't catch his shot well, but had he done so, the hosts would have been trailing early.
It was a brilliant passing move with sharp and incisive passing from Mumbai, and it set the tone for the rest of the half.
Norde was creating plenty of problems for Atletico's centre-backs Tiri and Arnab Mondal by running straight at them and taking them on. It also meant that they were occupied thanks to his threat and constant movement, thus leaving space for the midfielders to move in and size their efforts.
Gerson Vieira nearly found the back of the Atletico net with a long range effort in the 12th minute, but the ball flew just wide of the target.
"We had to solve the problems caused by the absentees that we had today. We needed to have a solution for that, and hence we had to think of a different line-up," Guimares explained at the post-match press conference. He had seen a Forlan-led attack struggling to be effective against FC Goa in their previous match, and it was time for a change.
"In Indian football, everybody knows me and my strengths. They know that I play out wide, and when I play on the wings, they assign 2-3 players to mark me. So our coach wanted that I keep the ball and fix defenders, that’s why he played Forlan behind me, as he can pass it to me and play one against one," Norde told reporters after the game.
It was a fix that saw the best possible attacking solution for the away side, and it worked well in the first-half. The visitors got into an excellent passing rhythm around the half-hour mark, and very nearly breached the mean Atletico defence when Ralte cut back following a long build-up, and it required a blinder from Debjit Majumder to keep out a sweetly struck shot from Norde.
At half time, Guimares' men had shaded possession and had a lot more shots compared to their hosts. "Everybody understood that today, with these circumstances, they needed to not just play well, but also put their hearts out on the field. And they did that," Guimares said.
Atletico came out a lot stronger in the second half and gained more control in midfield. They pushed Mumbai City deep in their own half and tried to make something happen. However, the visitors were very compact in defence and dealt with a series of crosses that the home side bombarded their box with.
Norde kept giving problems to the Atletico defence and his pace kept them on their toes. The winger, who plays for local side Mohun Bagan in the I-League, was running in spaces between the defenders and making life tough for them. But eventually, it was him drifting wide that led to Mumbai City's goal. The 27-year-old got the ball on the left side of the box. He threatened to cut inside and used that threat to twist and turn and fire a shot across the face of the goal in the hope that it would get a touch and go in. However, his cross got a deflection and fell kindly to Forlan, who had made his way into the box occupying the space left by the drifting Norde.
"In the first half, we played very well. In the second half also, we played and defended well. Football is all about taking your chances. We took our chance. Maybe we had more clear chances in the first half, but we took our chances in the second half as well, and won the match," Guimares said.
The game, before this moment, had seen a few chances go begging from either side. Norde had shot wide on a few occasions from promising positions. Atletico's Sameehg Doutie slipped at a crucial moment in the first half after getting into a shooting position.
But with Forlan, there were no such problems; he pounced on the deflected cross and dispatched it to the roof of the net, giving the in-form Atletico goalkeeper Majumdar no chance at all. The quality and class of the Mumbai City striker was obvious through this goal. The difference between the two sides was down to Mumbai's superior finishing.
Mumbai's defence had a solid evening and they restricted the hosts to long range shots and crosses. After hiccups against Delhi Dynamos and FC Goa in their last two matches, Mumbai City FC needed such a brilliant rearguard.
However, headlines were being written upfront as well. Beating Atletico de Kolkata in their own backyard despite missing Matias Defederico, Leo Costa and Boithang Haokip was indeed a big deal.
Guimares would also be heartened at finding the best combination for his strike force, after Norde and Forlan combined well all evening. Once all their players return, Mumbai City FC are likely to face an embarrassment of riches in the forward department, and they could forge together an extremely fluid attack, with all four attacking players interchanging their roles at will to keep their opponents guessing. The system employed by Guimares against ATK would facilitate that.
In playing Forlan behind Norde, Guimares might just have stumbled upon a formula that can work well for his side and take them into the play-offs and even beyond!
Updated Date: Oct 26, 2016 12:04 PM