Mumbai City FC finally ended their dismal losing run in the Maharashtra Derby with a convincing 2-0 win over pre-match favourites FC Pune City. Jorge Costa's men put in a disciplined performance to notch up their first win of the season vindicating their coach's belief that given time, his side has the quality to challenge for a top-four spot.
Costa named an unchanged side with Rafael Bastos, Arnold Issoko and Modou Sougou leading the attack. Subhashish Bose once again partnered Lucian Goian in the heart of defence with captain Paulo Machado and Sehnaj Singh operating as midfield pivots.
Pune's Miguel Angel Portugal made three changes to his side but there was no place for Marcelinho in the starting XI. The Brazilian, along with midfielder Marko Stankovic, were injury concerns and Portugal decided not to risk the duo ahead of the crucial tie against Bengaluru. Diego Carlos, who scored the equaliser against Delhi Dynamos, was rewarded with a place in the starting line-up. Also coming in to the squad were Sarthak Golui and Nikhil Poojari in place of Nim Dorjee and Jakob respectively.
Pune started brightly and almost took the lead in the first minute when Ashique Kuruniyan nicked the ball off Arnold and laid it into the path of Fanai. The left-back put in a good cross towards Emiliano Alfaro, but the Pune captain couldn't get it on target.
Mumbai also had a good chance to take an early lead from an audacious overhead attempt from Arnold. The Mumbai No 7 won a free-kick on the right after being pulled down by Ashique. Machado's free-kick found an unmarked Arnold at the far post and the Congolese winger's overhead attempt was kept out of goal by a combination of Golui and Adil Khan.
For Mumbai, Machado pulled the strings from midfield with Sehnaj Singh covering up for him defensively. Machado's movement on and off the ball was crucial in creating space for the likes of Bastos and Arnold. Before the match, Portugal had identified Machado as one of the three key players for Mumbai and the Portuguese star didn't disappoint.
While Mumbai controlled the middle of the park, Pune decided to channel their attacks through the left. The trio of Ashique, Carlos and Fanai linked up well, but lacked the killer pass. Another chance came Pune's way in the 20th minute when Alfaro held off Goian on the left of goal before hooking it onto the path of Poojari. The Pune No 11 connected well with the ball, but it was not enough to trouble Amrinder in goal.
Four minutes later, Mumbai drew first blood. Machado's wicked cross towards the back post was misjudged by 'keeper Vishal Kaith. The onrushing Arnold Issoko looked primed to get in an easy tap-in only for the cross to cannon off the post. As luck would have it, Mumbai's Sougou was the first to react as he slammed the ball home to give Mumbai the lead. It was a well-deserved goal for the Portuguese forward, who had toiled without finding the back of the net in the previous two matches.
Three minutes later, Arnold should have got a goal himself. Having beaten the offside trap, the Congolese winger latched on to a ball from deep and only had Kaith to beat. He took his time to get the ball under control, but despite Kaith letting the ball slip from his grasp, Arnold's shot never looked like going into goal. Arnold proved to be a handful for Fanai on the right throughout the match and it is a shame that the former Vitoria Setubol man didn't come away with a goal on Friday.
Despite trailing, Pune had more of the ball. But a goal seemed elusive. Poojari once again was at the right place at the right time to get on the end of a cross, but his volley was straight at Amrinder Singh. Carlos put Alfaro through in on goal, but the Pune captain was stopped in his tracks by a perfectly-timed tackle from Subhashish.
Just as it began to look like Pune might score before the half-time, they were handed a double blow. First, Ashique, who was having an interesting battle with Souvik Chakrabarti, had to be replaced due to a knee injury in the 41st minute by Robin Singh.
In the 43rd minute, Pune conceded a penalty after Fanai went sliding into Sougou in the box. The Pune defender was lucky to escape with only a yellow. Rafael Bastos stepped up to the spot and sent the ball down the middle to give Mumbai a 2-0 lead going into the break.
Mumbai came out in the second half intent on protecting their 2-0 lead and were happy to allow Pune have more possession of the ball. After the match, Mumbai coach Jorge Costa said, "At the break, I asked the players to have good defensive organisation. We didn't have much of the ball but we played well without the ball."
At the hour mark, Portugal made two changes, bringing on Marcelinho and Gurtej Singh in place of Poojari and Martin Diaz. Marcelinho almost made an instant impact. Carlos' cross from the left evaded everyone in the box and fell kindly for Marcelinho. The Brazilian took a touch before letting go off a left-footed shot which was saved well by Amrinder.
Try as much as they could, Pune just couldn't find the back of the net. Alfaro had a lot of good chances to score, but his killer touch in front of goal had seemingly deserted him on Friday. He smacked the crossbar despite being under pressure from Subhashish and also saw his header fly inches above the goal.
Speaking after the match, Portugal rued his strikers' missed chances. "We put in a lot of crosses in the area, but it was not a good day for the strikers. Alfaro had three or four chances. Robin and Diego had a couple of them and even Marcelinho had chances. We deserved more today."
In the 90th minute, Alfaro was gifted a golden chance to score through Bipin Singh's blind back pass. Amrinder charged outside the box to intercept Alfaro, but the Pune No 9 easily got away from him. Fortunately for the Mumbai gloveman, Lucian Goain was quick to get ahead of Alfaro and deny Pune a goal.
Arnold once again escaped Pune's offside trap and sprinted away on the right. After having beaten Kaith, Arnold made the most of slight contact from Gurtej to win Mumbai a second penalty. Goian stepped up to take the penalty, but Kaith guessed correctly to make a very good save.
There was still time for Mumbai to get a third goal. Machado once again struck the post after playing a quick one-two with Bipin Singh on the edge of the box. Despite not getting on the scoresheet, Machado and Arnold were Mumbai's best players on the pitch.
That Mumbai have a relatively changed side for the new season has been a recurring talking point for Costa in the early stages of the season. The Mumbai coach, however, has been confident that given time, his side will be genuine contenders for a top-four spot. On the back of their performance on Friday, Costa is being proven right.