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Boithang Haokip: The surprise element that Mumbai City FC desperately needed

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Haokip's performance gave life to Mumbai's attack which was dormant for the first two games.

Boithang Haokip
Boithang Haokip could well become the find of this season’s ISL

“We have a little bit more than 24 hours to have our usual check-up during the evening with the doctors. After lunch tomorrow we will know exactly with whom I can start. This is with Diego Forlan and all other players too”.

As Mumbai City FC headed into Tuesday’s encounter with Atletico de Kolkata- their coach, Alexandre Guimaraes made no promises about starting Diego Forlan for a third game on the trot. This was expected considering Mumbai’s marquee signing, Forlan is now 37 years old. Playing a 90-minute match every 3-4 days is just asking a bit too much even for a player who’s plied his trade in the best football leagues in the world.

To add to the home side’s woes, they were also without the Argentine striker, Gaston Sangoy. It meant Mumbai City FC had no striker present in their squad against Kolkata. It was time for Guimaraes to once again put on his thinking hat and find a solution.

The Costa Rican though is no stranger to sudden setbacks. Less than a week before the Indian Super League was about to commence, he received the news that the likes of Sunil Chhetri and  Udanta Singh won’t be available for the opening few games as they were playing for their parent club, Bengaluru FC in the AFC Cup.

The starting eleven sheets were presented to the media minutes before the match. No sign of a striker for the home side. The coach instead decided to field Boithang Haokip in place of Forlan. This despite Sony Norde being available to him.

Hitting gold on his debut

The man from Manipur began his career at Shillong Lajong FC’s  youth academy but made his senior debut at the age of 18. He scored twice on that day. It was time for Boithang to repeat his debut day heroics for Mumbai City FC.

What followed was a footballing lesson that millions were witness to. Haokip traditionally plays as a central midfielder. If required, he can also play as a full-back or a winger. But on the night, he was thrust with the responsibility of finding a goal for his side.

His movement off the ball was immaculate from minute one. He began the match playing as the furthest man on the pitch. The man who seems shy off the pitch was at his expressive best on it. Starting in a central position, he regularly peeled away to the wings.

It gave the likes of Leo Costa and Vadocz space to run into the heart of Atletico de Kolkata’s defence. He was involved in almost every chance that Mumbai City FC had on the night. If he didn’t have possession of the ball, he made sure he was positioned in the right areas to receive them.

Haokip’s off the ball movement gave his partner in crime, Defederico ample space to display his creativity and run into dangerous areas. The former’s pace contributed largely in creating havoc inside the Kolkata half.

Playing as a false nine, Boithang made diagonal runs for large parts of the match. It meant Kolkata’s defenders often themselves on the wrong side of him and couldn’t tackle him. No outfield player for Mumbai was active as Haokip in the first half. Yes, that includes Defederico as well.

Scornful as it may seem, Mumbai could have had a free-kick just outside the box if he would have gone down. Mumbai’s number 14 zipped past Atletico’s centre backs before he was tackled by their keeper.

But Haokip playing in the spirit of the game didn’t fall to the ground. There was definite contact from the keeper on him. Feather like but contact nonetheless. Credit to him for he was more focused on scoring the goal than going to ground. It doesn’t take much to bring down a player who is running at that pace.

Adapting to the team’s needs

Boithang Haokip Mumbai Kolkata
Boithang Haokip’s pace and energy gave the Kolkata defence fits

Having played as a winger before, Boithang knows a thing or two about freeing himself from his full backs. He adopted a similar approach when positioned centrally. His early runs were timed to perfection and made Kolkata’s defenders look substandard on numerous occasions who were huffing and puffing throughout the first half.

In the eleventh minute when his stinging left-footer hit the post, he was the only man in Kolkata’s half. He had three defenders for company. None of whom could keep up with the pacy Haokip. He was finally brought off by the coach at the hour mark and received a rapturous send off from the home crowd.

“The team understood what kind of game we have to play without Diego (Forlan). Haokip moved every well during the first forty-five minutes. He had a fantastic game”, coach Guimaraes  admitted as he was thoroughly impressed with the man from Manipur after the match. 

Mumbai travel to Kerala on Friday knowing very well that in Haokip they have a player who will run for every loose ball and help bring his teammates into the game with his off the ball movements. Alexandre may not take credit, but the wily old Costa Rican once again proved why he was recruited by Mumbai’s management in the first place.

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