After dropping points against Hyderabad FC last week in the Indian Super League, Mumbai City couldn’t afford to put a foot wrong. They had learned things the hard way after a last-minute penalty from Marko Stankovic at the Gachibowli stadium not only robbed them of three points but also left them in a precarious position to qualify for the playoffs.
As they squared off against NorthEast United on Friday, a side that was just one spot above bottom-placed Hyderbad, the tension was palpable.
Robert Jarni’s NorthEast United side were on a winless eight-match streak heading into the game and that would’ve given the Islanders a mental boost but they had their own issues to address too.
Centre-back Pratik Chaudhari, one of the mainstays in the Mumbai defence, was to miss the game through suspension and Souvik Chakrabati’s departure to Hyderbad alongside Sarthak Golui being sidelined for the rest of the season due to injury only made the task difficult.
At the full-time whistle, Diego Carlos’s well-taken goal proved to be the difference between the two sides. Mumbai City got the job done but, this wasn’t the most impressive of victories recorded by Jorge Costa’s side this term.
The opening exchanges were a cagey affair as Mumbai City employed the high press and forced the NorthEast United defence to play the long balls.
The visitors played direct and tried to distribute the ball to the wide areas so that wingers Simon Lundevall and Ninthoinganba Meetei could use their pace to push Mumbai on the back foot. The intention was clear - whip crosses across the face of goal and hope that target man Andrew Keogh would get at the end of at least one of them. Inside the first 20 minutes itself, NorthEast had fired in six crosses from the wings.
Mumbai also had chances of their own, mainly down the left wing through the marauding Diego Carlos who wreaked havoc with his guile and pace. There was the intent to attack from the home side but they looked rushed whenever they had the ball with Lundevall and Meetei breathing down their necks, waiting to pounce on the space behind the full-backs.
Mumbai, thereafter, adopted a safety approach where they attempted to contain NorthEast United. Rowllin Borges was tasked with the responsibility of marking Federico Gallego and the Uruguayan was lent support by youngster Lalengmawia, who kept Mumbai’s centre-back pairing of Mato Grgic and Hmingthanmawia under pressure.
However, clear cut chances evaded both sides. Moudou Sougou had come close by hitting the far post but when Carlos broke the deadlock in the 43rd minute before the break, it was Mumbai City’s first shot on target. By half-time, NorthEast United had one.
Mumbai City’s makeshift defense stands tall
Jarni made a tactical change at half-time, swapping Jose Leudo in for Martin Chaves to assert more control in the midfield and keep possession which the former had failed to do. Lalengmawia dropped a little deeper and the change made an instant impact as Chaves injected energy and spark in the midfield.
Given how vulnerable they looked in the first half, one expected Mumbai City to capitulate defensive especially with left-back Subhasish Bose also coming off injured. However, Mumbai City’s rearguard grew into the game as it progressed and looked very assured.
The home side maintained a tight defensive block, leaving no space and cut off the supply of direct supply of passes to Keogh. Apart from the few set-piece opportunities that came their way, NorthEast United found it hard to create any chances from open play let alone break down the opposition defense.
Winger Nikhil Kadam’s late introduction brought life to NorthEast United’s attack but even on the odd occasion when the Islanders threatened on the counter-attack, the goal was clear for them - register a clean sheet and close down the game.
“This kind of game, we had to be patient and that’s what we did,” Sougou told Scroll.in after the game.
Sougou added: “If we score can the second goal it is good but at least we don’t suffer. The clean sheet and the three points were the priority. If the attackers don’t do their job, the defenders will suffer. All eleven players have to work for the clean sheet. We don’t have a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo who can make a difference.”
The manner in which Jorge Costa’s side won may have not been satisfying but the result certainly was. Odisha FC and Chennaiyin FC, the other two teams contesting for the final playoff spot, won’t go down without a fight until the season ends but for now, Mumbai City can breathe easy.