It had been almost two years since FC Pune City last won an away game in the Indian Super League, and the rot stopped in Goa as the Stallions came away with all three points for the first time this season.
A cultured display from Antonio Lopez Habas’ men meant Goa never ran away with the game despite recording 17 shots on goal, and the away side had enough about them to snatch a late, 90th minute winner.
Having lost their opening game of the season to Mumbai City FC at home, Pune City had a significant retooling for the Goa game. Out went Bruno Arias, Lenny Rodrigues, Narayan Das and Gustavo Oberman along with the 4-2-3-1, in came marquee acquisition Mohamed Sissoko, Raju Yumnam, Dharmaraj Ravanan and Anibal Zurdo that allowed the Punekars to play a 3-4-2-1 variant.
Excitement was high when Sissoko joined Pune City’s ranks last week as the league’s youngest marquee player, and the French-born Malian did not disappoint. He dominated the midfield battle against Goa’s diamond in the first half before sitting back and instilling calm at the back to fend off attack after Goa attack in the second.
At times, the Pune City number 22 looked the best among the 22 players on the pitch, such was his influence on his debut game in India. His passing oozed class, his movements in front of the back line broke Goa attacks, and he tackled with the enthusiasm of a youngster.
After Monday’s largely sterile performance against Mumbai City, Pune City’s change in formation was also helped by Sissoko coming into the eleven. Also the fact that he slotted in seamlessly without any signs of rustiness makes for interesting times ahead for the Stallions faithful.
Perhaps the greatest impact Sissoko had on the game was to free up Jonatan Lucca. Brazilian Lucca, who was prominent for Zico’s side last season, provided a masterclass in advanced midfield as he laid on two goals, the first of which should have been his, had Laxmikanth Kattimani’s fingertips not come in the way.
From changing the point of attack to recycling the ball, Sissoko popped up all across the pitch in a first half where Pune City were unlucky to be on level terms. And when Goa turned up the pressure in the second half, he played his role in blocking Goa’s central access to goal as well as being the chief initiator of Pune City’s counterattacks.
A smash and grab?
While Goa’s second half intent — the Goans had 11 shots in the second half alone — and Pune City’s late winner against the run of play suggested that the away side were lucky winners, it was anything but.
Three fine Edel Bete saves aside, Goa were largely restricted to efforts from distance as the Stallions morphed to a 5-4-1 shape after the break and also created some clear-cut chances to take the lead.
It was a perfect away day for Habas’ side: playing positive football, frustrating the opposition, and scoring the winner late on to minimise any chances of a comeback.
From being pedestrian in their first game, Sissoko’s experience and temperament has brought about a change for Pune City. And also a new-found steel and game management; despite lots of tactical fouls throughout the game, Sissoko collected his overdue booking only in the 84th minute.
With a fine display of midfield dominance from Sissoko and Lucca, the Stallions will be confident ahead of their home game against NorthEast United on Wednesday.
With his socks pulled down in the Goa rain, Sissoko has so far proved to be an inspired signing for Pune City despite the loud clamour for attacking reinforcements.
Half of a football match is won if the midfield battle is won, and judging by their latest win, the Stallions have seemingly had a major coup in landing Sissoko, a battle-hardened player who has performed at the highest levels.
Full-time result: FC Goa 1-2 FC Pune City.
Goalscorers: 26’ Arata Izumi (Pune City), 33’ Rafael Coelho (Goa), 90’ Momar Ndoye (Pune City).