Results of the Indian Super League (ISL) 2016 have been surprising in recent days, and the Maharashtra Derby between FC Pune City and Mumbai City FC on Thursday night was no different. Mumbai were playing at home, were just a point off the top, and were welcoming India's top goalscorer Sunil Chhetri back into the fold. But it was FC Pune City's own returning hero, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, who proved to be the difference in a tightly-contested game that could be a watershed moment for the Stallions' ISL campaign.
Ahead of kick-off, Pune were the only team with no clean sheets this year. They put up one of their best defensive displays of the season to correct that anomaly in fine fashion.
Fresh from a win — their first at home — over Atletico Kolkata in their previous game, Pune City named an unchanged XI for the first time this season. Coach Antonio Habas set his side up to contain Mumbai's attacking riches comprising Chhetri, Diego Forlan, Matias Defederico and Leo Costa.
It was a sensible move by the Stallions to sit back in what was a 3-2-4-1 formation that was loaded in the centre. Space was at a premium for the home side, and the qualitative superiority of Defederico was negated by a lopsided back line that spoke volumes of Habas' tactical nous.
Narayan Das, the purported left wing back, made sure the Argentine was kept in check, even at the expense of foregoing Pune's attacking outlet from the left by not foraying forward, like Rahul Bheke did on the opposite flank.
Defederico has been among the best imports of the season; his tendency to cut inside to his favoured left foot from his starting position on the right flank has made him an obvious threat to any defence this season. But Narayan's positional intelligence and man orientation was part of a defensive plan that Pune City executed to perfection.
That plan also revolved around blocking the central channels and forcing Mumbai to attack from wide areas. That resulted in crosses that were easily dealt with by the Stallions defence, commanded by the excellent Edel Bete in goal.
Pune also maintained a numerical superiority at the back at all times, that allowed for good covering in transitions and breaking Mumbai's interplay in advanced areas. It was the perfect plan to thwart the home side, and Edel was also on hand to keep out Defederico and Forlan's three goal-bound shots, which were Mumbai's only attempts on goal throughout the 90 minutes.
However, owing to their greater focus on shutting their opponents out, Pune were uninventive in attack. Crosses and Jonatan Lucca's deep runs from midfield failed to produce anything of note for the Stallions until the 89th minute.
With the game getting stretched and becoming more open in the closing stages, and tiredness setting in, it was apt that half-time substitute Lyngdoh reacted the quickest to Mumbai goalkeeper Albino Gomes' fumble from Narayan's cross from the left to score the winning goal.
Edel made three saves, and his teammates all put in untiring defensive work to keep Pune in the game. That set them up to build a head of steam going into the game's latter stages.
It was a classic away performance from Habas' side: Keeping things tight at the back and not showing excessive ambition going forward, eventually capitalising on an individual mistake from their opponents to snatch a late winner.
Much as they sound unexciting, clean sheets are the key to any team's progress in the ISL. Mumbai City have shown all season how a defensively solid side could lead the league, even with measly attacking numbers.
On a day when all eyes were on Chhetri, another returning Bengaluru FC star had the last laugh, and Pune City are in the top four for the first time this season, at least for the next 24 hours.
Ahead of the derby, Maharashtra lad Bheke talked up his team's growing morale, as stimulated by their win over Kolkata. A second straight win has further boosted that. Another win — in Chennai on Tuesday — could confirm the notion that Habas' men are peaking at just the right time of the season.