12:00 GMT, Sunday 11th February, Mumbai Football Arena (Mumbai, India), Sab TV UK
The Islanders dream of a top-four finish has faded in recent weeks and now they host the second place FC Pune City who will look to go top of the group with a win.
Mumbai have lost pace with the top four and they sit five points adrift of fourth-placed Jamshedpur.
Their recent form has been discouraging, to say the least as Alexandre Guimaraes’s side could only manage four points from a possible 15 in last five encounters.
A win over Pune is essential if they are to resurrect their pursuit of a playoff spot.
Pune have been one of the best sides of the season as they trail league leaders Bengaluru by five points.
Ranko Popovic has been able to create a potent attacking mixture with Marcelinho, Emiliano Alfaro and Diego Carlos, while new recruit Marko Stankovic has been effective as well.
A win over the Islanders will go a long way in reducing the gap at the top and helping for a first-place finish.
Last Time Out
Mumbai City FC 1-2 Jamshedpur FC (Indian Super League)
Mumbai failed to maintain balance in their last outing as they focused too much on their attacking endeavours leaving an open space for Jamshedpur to come into and score two essential goals that consolidated their claim for a playoff spot.
The Islanders failed to create a defensive wall against the Men of Steel as Farukh Chowdhury, Jerry Mawihmingthanga and Izu Azuka repeatedly made it into their box.
Chowdhury beautifully nutmegged Gerson Vieira to launch a poorly hit shot which bounced off a couple of Mumbai defenders before ending up at the back of the goal.
While they did try to get one back, Balwant Singh’s wastefulness in front of the goal cost them the match as the striker scuppered multiple opportunities to take the home side level.
They did ultimately equalise in the 79th minute through Everton Santos’s header but the visitors reacted to take back the lead through Bikash Jairu’s well-hit shot which sent Amrinder Singh and a couple of defenders the wrong way.
NorthEast United 0-1 FC Pune City (Indian Super League)
Pune had just suffered a near defeat against the Kerala Blasters and were looking to bounce back to winning ways when they faced NorthEast United.
However, getting a victory over the Highlanders this time proved tougher than the first leg when they ran riot with a 5-0 scoreline.
The opponents were better organised in their attack and continuously threatened the Pune box but Rafa Lopes, Gurtej Singh and Marcos Tebar handled the pressure beautifully to keep Vishal Kaith goal void of any danger.
Marcinho and Danilo Lopes did manage to get a few shots off but neither was enough to be a threat.
Pune’s pressing game bore them fruit once more as Marcinho was dispossessed in the midfield igniting the move that got Pune their winning goal, through Marcelinho’s clinical finishing.
Mumbai City FC Lineup
Guimaraes changed his lineup and formation against Jamshedpur, fielding a 3-4-3. A return to 4-2-3-1 with Gerson Vieira beside Achille Emana might bring better results.
FC Pune City Lineup
Baljit Sahni returned to the right back position against NorthEast, but Sarthak Golui is likely to take his place in the starting lineup once more.
Key Battle: Lucian Goian (Mumbai City FC) vs Marcelinho (FC Pune City)
It’s going to be an interesting battle with Mumbai’s skipper going up against Pune’s.
Lucian Goian has been instrumental in helping Mumbai rebuild their team this season after his performance in the last season that led them to keep nine clean sheets in 16 games.
Despite Mumbai’s inability to retain the same defensive record, Goian has been a key figure at the back, often starting plays and making crucial tackles.
He has the highest number of tackles in the league (68 in 11 games) and fourth highest number of interceptions in the league (22 in 11 games) proving his influence at the back.
Going up against him will be the Brazilian maestro, Marcelinho. The former Delhi Dynamos player has been as crucial as expected this season, linking up with fellow Brazilian Diego Carlos in attack and providing for Emiliano Alfaro up front.
His pace and guile make him an extremely dangerous player in the final third, often ending up as the difference between the two sides.
Mumbai’s defensive tactics leaving them out to dry
Guimaraes’s success in the first season was accorded to the pragmatic gameplay by the Costa Rican manager. However, his defensive tactics have off-late left the team out to dry, as they continue to concede goals at crucial junctures.
For example, Jamshedpur is known to a pragmatic team whose coach prioritises defence before all else. Playing a 3-4-3 formation essentially brings in 5 defenders at the back, which ultimately leaves them with only two tiers of protection, the midfield and the defence. The formation works only when the wing-backs are equally expressive in attack and defence and have a high work rate.
Sanju Pradhan hadn’t played a single competitive fixture in 2016 and played only 30 games in the two years before that. Sahil Tavora on the other end is a midfielder and does not have the work-rate or the defensive organisation needed to play at that positions.
Midfield key for Pune’s success
Going by the team’s position in the league table once would safely assume that Ranko Popovic has gotten most of his tactics right. However, in the last six games, his team has won three, while losing two and drawing the remainder. Even in those wins, the team has far from being dominant.
Apart from the game against ATK, they haven’t scored more than two goals and almost always score in the last quarter of the game.
The main reason behind this might be the fact that Pune’s counter-attacking game and transition from midfield to attack are fast enough to out-pace the tired legs of the opponent teams. But they are far from being as dominant as they were and it might have something to do with their midfield.
NorthEast almost held Pune to a goalless draw had Marcinho not been dispossessed in the 86th minute. The fact that it took them that long to break through the Highlanders, should be enough to tell Popovic that he needs more energy in midfield.
Prediction: Mumbai City FC 0-1 FC Pune City
Mumbai’s defence is not compact enough to resist Marcelinho, Alfaro and Carlos. Pune have won the first leg with a 2-1 margin and will at least get one goal past Amrinder Singh.