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Spoils Shared But Blasters Rue What Could Have Been

Sunday, 3 December 2017|Vineeth Krishnan
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Mumbai City FC came to the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium, started off defensively as usual, fell behind as could be expected, and then roared back to claim what was a deserved draw against hosts Kerala Blasters in the ISL here on Sunday.

The Blasters goal came from Dutch youngster Markos Sifneos, who had been thrust into the starting line-up in place of Iain Hume. However, India international forward Balwant Singh silenced the home support with a well-taken goal in the second half after the Blasters had wasted numerous chances to extend their lead.

Since the Blasters last game, nine days previously against Jamshedpur FC, it is fair to say that the ISL took a giant step forwards without them. Since that 0-0 draw on November 24th, Pune City alone played three games (admittedly the third was the evening kick-off before this match), winning two to go up to six points in the table. Indeed, they have been joined there by Bengaluru FC, Chennaiyin FC and FC Goa. A loss then against Mumbai City FC would have meant a gap starting to open up to the four playoff spots. In a small league with just 18 matches, a gap of 4 points (that too after playing three home games) would start to seem sizeable.

The hosts started with the urgency required to ensure that such a gap didn’t open up. By the time the opening goal came in the 14th minute, the Blasters had already enjoyed six set pieces in the attacking third. A few of these caused indecision in the Mumbai defence, best illustrated by Sandesh Jhingan’s goal-bound shot in the 5th minute, which fell to him after the first ball was not fully dealt with.

However, it was from open play that the goal arrived, from a cross from the right flank by an overlapping Rino Anto. Dimitar Berbatov, playing even further deep in central midfield than he did against Jamshedpur, was pulling out his best Paul Scholes impression, orchestrating the play, waving teammates into position and gesticulating wildly when those in yellow did not live up to his expectations. Given time on the ball, the Bulgarian can unlock most defences and he did just that with a simple through ball to Rino, whose pin-point cross left Sifneos with the easiest task of the lot, side-foot past Amrinder Singh and charge away in celebration.

Berbatov’s magic was again on display in the 42nd minute when he brought Jackichand into the game again, this time with a lofted ball. The India international controlled the ball well but then blazed over from 10 yards, even as the whole stadium rose in anticipation of goal number two. After the frenetic initial going, this was easily the best chance of the half, with the only other notable effort coming from CK Vineeth in the 27th minute. Having taken down a high ball from Jacki, the Kerala lad showed good strength to hold off Davinder Singh before getting a shot away on the turn, forcing Amrinder to save down to his left.

Blasters coach Rene Meulensteen was forced to make a switch at the break, taking off Rino Anto, who was struggling with a groin strain, and bringing on Pritam Kumar Singh. The right-footed Lalruatthara switched over to the spot Rino vacated while Pritam went to left back. The Blasters should have made the game safe early in the second period, but first Courage Pekuson and then Vineeth were wasteful in front of goal. Mumbai almost made them pay straight after the latter’s miss in the 55th minute, with a shot from Everton dos Santos that was palmed onto the inside of the post by keeper Paul Rachubka, who gratefully clutched the ball as it came straight back into his arms.

The goal was coming and it almost seemed inevitable that the Blasters would rue the number of chances they wasted. Eventually, it came with their three best players on the pitch combining for Mumbai FC in the 76th minute. Cameroonian Achille Emana had dropped slightly deeper after the change of ends and he picked a through ball to Everton, almost identical to the way Berbatov had released Rino for the Blasters goal. Balwant Singh showed a great turn of pace to get into the box and reach Everton’s drilled cross before Jhingan, making no mistake with a finish into the roof of the net.

 Things went from bad to worse shortly after for the Blasters with Vineeth being sent off for two yellow cards, the second for what was deemed a dive in the box in the 89th minute by referee Venkatesh R. The result leaves Blasters seventh in the league with three points from as many games, while Mumbai are a point and a spot ahead, having played a game more.