Before the start of Round 2 of the Indian Super League, the first Kolkata derby of the ISL was easily the match most fans looked forward to the most. But a technical game of football between two Spanish coaches at Mumbai City FC and FC Goa, a few days before the tie between the Kolkata giants, showcased the quality of football that the rest of the league should aspire to.
Sergio Lobera, Mumbai City FC’s new coach, once an integral part of the FC Goa set-up, was up against Juan Ferrando, a first-time coach in the ISL hailing from the same neck of the woods as Lobera himself. Lobera, who was unceremoniously sacked by Goa despite a league-leading entry into the 2019-20 playoffs, had a point to prove against his former club. Getting three points must have felt good for Lobera.
Both teams were organised to play from the back but it was Goa who enjoyed more of the ball and only gave up on that after Redeem Tlang got red-carded in the 40th minute of the match.
As the match progressed, a few things became clear. Goa’s captain Edu Bedia, before the start of the season, had said that some teams had better tactics than them in previous seasons and ended up winning titles – a statement that almost felt like a parting shot at Lobera. But the movement that Goa showed in the final third of the pitch, and even when they didn’t have the ball, was the difference against Mumbai.
Lobera’s teams like control over midfield but as of now, figuring out how to work in the final third of the pitch is what should be Mumbai’s primary concern. Before the red card, Mumbai hadn’t had a single shot on target for almost 150 football-playing minutes. They finally ended their second game of the ISL with three shots on target against a team with a man down and had to rely on Adam Le Fondre’s last-gasp penalty for all three points.
Forced to play more than half the match with 10 men, Goa completed the game with over 300 passes, and the same number of shots on and off target as their opponents and had 17 interceptions overall for the team.
Mumbai’s firepower, with Le Fondre and Bartholomew Ogbeche, who came on as a substitute in the 71st minute, should have made this result look a lot more convincing. But Goa, with a 2-2 draw against Bengaluru and now a narrow one-goal loss to Mumbai, have shown in two games that they are just as competitive a team even though a number of their core players have left.
It’s tough to justify the logic behind the Kolkata derby being conducted this early into the season. With both clubs in the ISL for the first time and there being no crowds allowed as of now, the match should ideally have been built up as a marquee event a little later in the season when both teams were not feeling the effects of a short pre-season and life in a bio-secure bubble.
The rust showed with Bagan once again not able to find consistency in their passing but possessing a perfect get-out-of-jail card like no other in Roy Krishna – who scored his second goal in two games. East Bengal, though, have a far bigger concern with the lack of a pedigreed goal-scorer in their ranks, something that was evident in the derby when they had to rely on India international Balwant Singh to spearhead the offence. Suffice to say, that wasn’t the best of options.
Time and again, the Indian Super League’s spotlight has fallen on foreign internationals, when the focus of the tournament needs to be on Indian players and what they can do in the midst of quality overseas recruits and pedigreed coaches. With almost no football in eight months, one of the things to look out for was how the Indian national team players performed in the opening part of the season. Round 2 of the ISL was particularly fortuitous for a few of them.
Chances are if you are an Indian striker and your name isn’t Sunil Chhetri, getting game time in the ISL is difficult. Manvir Singh, brought on as a substitute for ATK Mohun Bagan, managed to put in a lung-busting run in the final minutes of the Kolkata derby before a smart left-footed finish, cutting inside the box for his first goal of the season.
His teammates at the back, Sandesh Jhingan and Subhasish Bose, two of India’s four-man defensive backline, have now managed two clean sheets in two games. This is particularly significant for Jhingan who has come back after a long injury layoff and is one of the best central defenders available for the national team.