When you underperform as much as Mumbai City FC have in the past two seasons, one can’t help but look with apprehension as they launch a new bid to win the Indian Super League (ISL). After a disappointing seventh in the inaugural version of India’s footballing equivalent of the IPL, they could only improve by a solitary spot and move to sixth in 2015.
At the core of Mumbai’s problems have been a string of poor choices by the management. Their hiring of Nicolas Anelka as a player can be justified, but to make the Frenchman a coach belied any form of logic and was a major reason for their failures. After all, it’s hard to imagine an Indian league team that can boast of the firepower of the legendary Anelka and the country’s top goalscorer in the game – Sunil Chhetri – and still fail on a spectacular level.
For primarily this reason, the signing of Diego Forlan must be taken with a hint of trepidation. There are pros and cons involved in the Uruguayan’s signing but the heartiest positive one can take away from it is this – Forlan is looking to move to a club in January.
This is a man who believes there is good football left in him. Therefore he is looking to perform and knows that a string of goals could mean an offer that could push his career further by a couple of months. The same kind of dedication to the game could not be expected of Anelka and to compare them would be unfair, but Mumbai is definitely getting a much better player in Forlan this season.
After travelling all over the world from the likes of Manchester United to Cerezo Osaka, the seasoned veteran has seen it all and is a likelier candidate to gel with Sunil Chettri. But Forlan will also have a clear run of games as the go-to striker for new Mumbai City FC manager Alexander Guimaraes, because Bengaluru FC has caused bedlam in the world of the Costa Rican coach with their unprecedented run in the AFC Cup. Mumbai is missing the most number of players in lieu of Bengaluru FC duty, with four players – including key members like Chhetri and left-back Fanai Lalchhuanmawai – set to be out for an extended period of time. Out of the 14 games that each team is supposed to play, Chettri and co are likely to miss five.
This could actually be a blessing in disguise if Forlan manages to strike gold. If not, then he has an able partner in the form of Jackichand Singh. The ex-FC Pune City winger could be a diamond in the rough for the Mumbaikars. In all the hullaballoo over Forlan, the diminutive winger could replicate his form of two years ago, that helped Royal Wahingdoh manage to secure promotion to the I-League. One could even make the case for him to be the dark horse of this Mumbai side – a side that stands on the shoulders of the achievements of Forlan but is desperately looking to prove their mettle after two seasons of indifference.
Mumbai City FC have played their cards smarter this time with the signing of Costa Rican manager Alexander Guimaraes. His experience at the top echelons of football is valuable to a team that badly needs some tactical know-how. After all, leading his national side to two World Cup’s in 2002 and 2006 is no mean feat, and at the very least guarantees a level of strategic football, something that was sorely lacking last season.
Guimares’ was also pleased with Mumbai training camp in Dubai. Despite two draws and two losses Guimaraes said, "We did very well in Dubai. We knew about the players. We proposed to them a different style of play and we had the opportunity to see each one of them. Now we have a clear picture of what we have and what we can expect."
Teams like FC Goa and Atletico de Kolkata pose a massive challenge to the team from Mumbai. The lack of a fixed core makes them susceptible to settled squads like the Goans, and thus going into games with set game plans might be their best option.
Defensively speaking, Mumbai had a torrid time in the 2015 edition. A leaky defence was looked to be set right with the addition of foreign defenders like Lucian Goian, Gerson Vieira and Facundo Cardozo. Some important players to watch out for would be Haitian striker Sony Norde, Indian midfielder Pronay Halder and new signing Matias Defederico. However, goalkeeper Amrinder Singh will be away on Bengaluru FC duty and Norde is likely to miss some games because of international duties. Clearly, the odds don't stack up in Mumbai's favour when it comes to the squad.
All in all, this Mumbai squad has its strengths but it remains to be seen how the coach is able to build team cohesiveness and whether he is able to extract enough opportunities for Forlan.
While the ISL will have a minimum of 14 games that each team will play, Diego Forlan talked about how the tournament was more like his experience at the World Cup. The thick and fast nature of matches means that treating the ISL like a knockout might actually work in the favour of a team like Mumbai that are relying heavily on a strikeforce of Forlan, Chettri and Jackichand.
Another major factor that could play into the hands of the team could be their shift from the DY Patil Stadium to the Andheri Sports Complex. While not a 60,000+ seater like the DY Patil, organisers would find it easier to fill up the Sports Complex and thus the crowds could well be on its way to play its part and be the 12th man for Mumbai.
As for the Mumbai City FC fan, one can hope that the trajectory of results goes higher, because from an optimistic point of view, after seventh and sixth position finishes, the hopes are that things can’t get any worse.