Adrian Mutu was lacking fitness, sharpness and any sort of composure before FC Pune City's match against FC Goa on Sunday night — a game he surprisingly started ahead of Nigerian striker Kalu Uche and the club's mercurial forward Tuncay Şanli.
And it was even more surprising that he lasted the full 90 minutes, the cherry on the cake being an acrobatic volleyed finish in the last minute of the match to win a point against the Indian Super League table toppers.
Of the nine matches that Pune have played so far, the Romanian striker has played only 208 minutes. He's only got 65 percent of his passes on target and has looked jaded in most of his appearances. However, he's got a very good 50 percent shots on target ratio (seven out of 14) and one of those went in just when it was needed most.
"We can all see his quality — he missed a few days of training and that interrupted his regime. We had three games in six games after that which meant that players on the bench (including Mutu) were doing very little as well, almost training to sit on the bench. So it was a Catch-22 situation in terms of playing him but it was not a gamble," Pune manager David Platt said, before adding that he was very pleased to see his marquee player last the whole match.
"Once we got through the (previous) Goa game, we had Mutu get himself in a position where he could sustain 90 minutes — today, he finished the game more with his head than his legs, and is now in a position to start."
It was not like Mutu was running all over the park. Platt had played him alone up front, so he stuck in and around the box, but he certainly looked more proactive in getting into dangerous positions. His first shot on goal was a completely mistimed overhead kick which was high, wide and not-so-handsome, but he slowly got his understanding with Eugeneson Lyngdoh going and was always a threat in the air.
Mutu should have scored when he was put through by Didier Zokora one-on-one, his low shot hit straight at the keeper when he could have calmly hit it over Laxmikant Kattimani. Mutu's ageing legs cheated him when he failed to react as quickly as he should have to Tuncay's header across goal, but seconds later Mutu was climbing at the back post to head one back across goal only to see the chance wasted.
He was aided by Lyngdoh pushing up from midfield as a second striker — the Indian's movement getting immense praise from Platt, who called him one of the most intelligent players he has worked with in his career.
Mutu's performance was even better because Platt opted not to play a No 10 behind him, instead choosing a tight team meant to soak up Goa's counter-attacking prowess.
"We needed an extra midfield player today, so I have to get this from the back or from the front. Or I could have tried three at the back but that's a gamble, so we played different and took the No 10 out. Tactically we wanted to be a 4-3-3 defensively and Lyngdoh went up with Mutu very well," Platt said.
Both Mutu and Roger Johnson got headers on target in the dying minutes of the match but Kattimani was in fine form on the night and any of Mutu's chances could have gone in on another day.
The 36-year-old could have been forgiven for being left frustrated after seeing so many chances wasted but what was really impressive is that he kept going — his reward was a loose ball that fell just ahead of him, and he slammed in with aplomb to show that he's still got it.
The writer tweets @TheFalseNo9
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Updated Date: Nov 09, 2015 10:00:36 IST