Mumbai City FC had six midfielders, though of varying kinds, in their line-up against Kerala Blasters, who had as many four offensive players in their first eleven. On paper, it looked like Mumbai would easily win the battle in the middle of the park by seeing more of the ball and not letting Kerala have a lot of space in the middle and final third.
However, their plans went for a toss. Their midfield was completely overrun and it was their defenders, especially the centre-backs who did a commendable job.
David Lalrinmuana, the Aizawl FC captain, was too lightweight and hardly made any difference in what was his first start in the Indian Super League (ISL). He struggled to track the runs of Mohamed Rafique and didn’t apply enough pressure on Mehtab Hossain who was allowed time and space to pick his passes.
Sehnaj Singh and Kristian Vadocz would often drop deep to track the runs of Kervens Belfort and Michael Chopra, who were just playing behind Mohammed Rafi, whose aerial prowess has been well documented.
The front three of Leo Costa, Matias Defederico and Boithang Haokip didn’t link-up with the Argentine midfielder having to do all by himself. Haokip struggled against Aaron Hughes and Cedric Hengbart while Costa was guilty of miss-passes.
It was only after the introduction of Sony Norde that Mumbai managed to create a decent chance which alost resulted in goal. The Haitian exposed Sandesh Jhingan on the left and beat Sandip Nandy only to see his effort being cleared just in time by an Hughes.
Coach Alexandre Guimaraes explained that he wanted to be cautious with Norde as the winger had travelled a lot in less than a week. However, had they included a Cafu, who is far more offensive than Costa and has the ability to open defences, he wouldn’t have allowed Kerala to attack in numbers. There would always be a threat of him and Defederico linking up to score on the counter or win a free-kick or corner.
Mumbai do need a centre-forward as soon as possible. With Diego Forlan to miss their next tie against Delhi Dynamos too, they do not have a number nine in their squad. The Haokip experiment worked against Atletico de Kolkata but Kerala didn’t give the north-eastern midfielder any chance whatsoever.
They were also lucky not to be a man down in the first half when Aiborlang Khongjee, in a moment of madness, lunged into Mehtab Hossain and wasnt even booked, much to the amazement of the Kerala side.
Kerala Blasters will be pleased to get their first three points of the season. There were plenty of positives in the manner in which they pressed and kept attacking in numbers. Azrack Mahamat was the star of the game as he kept Vadocz and Sehnaj quiet all evening. The former Espanyol medio was supported by Michael Chopra, Rafique and Belfort who would often drop back to help win the ball back. Of course, Mumbai playing a lot of unwanted passes also helped their cause.
They were also lucky that for two matches running, Delhi Dynamos and Mumbai City FC haven't really tested Nandy in goal.
The inclusion of Mohammed Rafi in the starting eleven made sense as the striker could have had at least two goals in the first half. He got on the end of a cross saw his effort going straight into the hands of the goalkeeper. His second header from a corner-kick was much better even though it missed the target by a few inches.
This win shall certainly boost their confidence massively as they embark on a trip for four away matches, starting next week against FC Pune City.