After muscling their way into second-place in the Indian Super League (ISL) table with a nine-game unbeaten run, Mumbai City FC seem intent on throwing it all away, losing their third match on the trot as NorthEast United FC won 2-0 at the Mumbai Football Arena on Wednesday.
Mumbai were left shell-shocked by an early goal from Rowllin Borges in the fourth minute, a sucker-punch that took the wind out of their sails a little prematurely. NorthEast United did well to capitalise on Mumbai's first-half stupor, doubling their lead in the 33rd minute after Bartholomew Ogbeche awkwardly shinned a cross past Mumbai goalkeeper Amrinder Singh.
Prior to the match, NorthEast head coach Eelco Schattorie spoke cryptically of certain weaknesses he had found in Mumbai's style of play, but of course, the Dutchman shrewdly refused to divulge any of his secrets at the time. Luckily, hindsight is 20/20, and in retrospect, the flaws he spoke of were exceedingly apparent.
Playing with a makeshift back line, bereft of the defensive prowess of Subasish Bose and Lucian Goian, Mumbai looked shaky right from the get-go. This hesitation was most visible when it came to dealing with crosses, as players appeared to be frozen in a state of panic every time a ball was whipped in by the NorthEast attack.
NorthEast's Keegan Pereira was the chief architect of the first goal thanks to exactly such a cross, after the left-back was given space to run into on the left flank with Souvik Chakrabarti being caught out of position. Pereira did well to get his head up and pick out an unmarked Borges with an inch-perfect pass that the midfielder calmly side-footed past a flailing Amrinder.
Mumbai attempted to get right back in it, playing the best football they would play over the course of the match in the ten minutes that followed the first goal. In the seventh minute, Arnold Issoko raced onto a pass, preventing it from going out with a deft touch. The Congolese winger did well to pick out Rafael Bastos on the edge of the NorthEast penalty area, whose curling effort rattled the crossbar before bouncing out of play.
In the following minutes, the game quickly devolved into the tetchy affair it would be for the rest of the evening after Mumbai coach Jorge Costa received an extended talking-to from the Jordanian referee for his repeated excursions outside his technical area. Costa was fury personified, raging at every decision that went against his team with a choice blend of Portuguese swear words. Perhaps the most obvious recipient of his wrath was second-choice left-back Vignesh Dakshinamurthy, whose decision making was suspect, at the best of times.
Costa's dissatisfaction with 20-year-old Vignesh prompted him to make an early change, asking midfielder Mohammed Rafique to warm-up to and take his place. Unfortunately for Costa, his decision came a minute late, with Vignesh being drawn out of position by Federico Gallego, who slid the ball past him into the path of right-back Reagan Singh. Reagan's cutback was fizzed into the penalty area, straight into the feet of the lurking Ogbeche, who didn't know much about the finish as it rebounded off of his shins and trickled into the goal.
As the Mumbai players trudged back towards the center-circle to resume the match, Vignesh returned to the substitute's bench, with Rafique slotting in at right-back and Chakrabarti coming over to the right. The remainder of the first half passed by without incident, as both teams struggled to get a rhythm going.
The second half was played at a similarly lethargic pace, albeit with Mumbai having more of the ball. Despite this possession, they were unable to threaten the NorthEast goal to any considerable extent, with their best chance of the evening falling to Serbian defender Marko Klisura, who got into an incredible position on a set-piece but fluffed his lines in front of a gaping goal.
Issoko was also gifted a gilt-edged opportunity to pull one back for the Islanders in the 77th minute when Rafael Bastos lofted in a delectable cross, but the winger was unable to generate any real power with his header and the ball was gratefully gathered up by NorthEast keeper Pawan Kumar. The NorthEast defence did well to deny Mumbai any more opportunities, and resolutely clung on to their clean sheet to claim all three points from an away fixture for the first time since November.
Thanks to this victory, NorthEast have now leapfrogged Mumbai into the second place on the table, with Mumbai sliding down into third, although the difference between the two is minuscule at best. Level on 27 points, both teams have scored 21 goals and conceded 17, meaning that they have an identical goal difference of four, making their situation one that could change in the blink of an eye. Incredibly, despite losing three games in a row, Mumbai still find themselves in a relatively favourable position in terms of their qualification hopes.
In the post-match press conference, Mumbai's Costa appeared to be well aware of this fact but accepted that things needed to be changed, saying, "The first person I hold guilty for this defeat is me. The players play in a certain way because I tell them to play that way. So I’m responsible for this loss. It’s true that I’m not happy with three defeats. But if you take the other eight teams, except Bengaluru, the reality is that any team would have wanted to start this match in our position."
He also mentioned the injuries suffered by key players in his squad, adding, "In the last few games, we’ve had to change things in every match. Today, we didn’t have Lucian Goian and Subasish. Last time, we didn’t have Arnold and Subasish. The one before, we didn’t have Sougou. And we felt the difference, when some players are missing. In the next game, Rafael Bastos is suspended. But that’s why the club pays me, to find solutions. And I will find a solution, I’m sure."
Mumbai's next two matches are both away fixtures, featuring tricky journeys to Kolkata and Pune, both teams that are currently in a good run of form. NorthEast, on the other hand, host Pune and then travel to Kerala Blasters, who have won just once in this season. While Mumbai's task is arduous, it is by no means impossible, but Costa will have to act quickly if he is to stop the rot.
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Updated Date: Feb 14, 2019 13:49:26 IST