"I think that in football you have to have confidence in your players. I think all the ISL (clubs) recognise the quality we have upfront. So it is a matter of patience." Mumbai City FC's manager Alexandre Guimares had said on Saturday, on the eve of his side's Indian Super League (ISL) 2016 clash against Kerala Blasters after being repeatedly quizzed about his side's struggles in front of goal.
"Sometimes (when things are going wrong), the goal gets very small, but when you score then the goal gets bigger. The main thing for the players is they have chances and they are having those (at the moment). So sooner rather than later they will convert more what they have been doing," he added, reiterating the faith he had in his players.
It had become a bit of a theme of Guimares' press conferences, irrespective of whether Mumbai had won 1-0, lost 0-1 or were involved in a goalless draw.
But on Saturday, his players repaid the faith the gaffer had in them, and how!
Facing the best defence in the league, a team that had just registered two wins on the spin while scoring five goals, and coming into the game on the back of a week's rest, Mumbai's misfiring attack — that had just drawn a blank in Goa three days ago — had the odds stacked against them.
But within five minutes of the whistle, the famed Kerala rearguard was breached. It wasn't just a goal that gave Mumbai's attack the confidence which was lacking, but it also set the tone for the rest of the evening.
Lining up in a 4-3-3 formation rather than their usual 4-2-3-1, Mumbai's extra man in the middle of the park was telling, right from the outset.
As the Blasters tried to play their way out, Krisztian Vadocz won the ball in midfield and immediately found Sunil Chhetri, who had dropped deep to collect the ball. The Indian captain then found Matias Defederico on the right side and played it to him first time. By then, Diego Forlan had made a run from the left into the space vacated by Chhetri, and Defederico while shielding the ball from the Blasters players, waited for Forlan to reach the danger area and then floated a brilliant through ball with the outside of his foot. Forlan was away. The Uruguayan used his experience and shrugged off Cedric Hengbart's challenge before firing past Graham Stack.
The passing was incisive and the movement fluid, but most importantly for Mumbai, there was a killer finish at the end of it. The scoreboard read 1-0 in their favour, but the goal meant more than that. It was the spark that Mumbai's strike force were looking for since a very long time and they had finally combined to produce a goal that was expected of them.
The visitors were rattled; their bunch of travelling supporters, who more than made themselves heard at the start, had gone silent. Mumbai, on the other hand, had their tails up. The physical presence of Vadocz, combined with the industry of Sehnaj Singh and Cafu — who had been deployed in a more central role than usual — meant Kerala struggled to get out of their half.
The attacking trio of Forlan-Chhetri-Defederico was combining and inter-changing, and with Cafu bombing forward occasionally, the hosts were creating menace in the Kerala defence. On 13 minutes, the visitors conceded a cheap free-kick just outside the box in the wake of growing pressure from the home side.
It gave Forlan the chance to give fans in India a glimpse of his real quality. He stepped and dispatched the free kick in the top corner in typical Forlan style and Mumbai were simply over the hill and gone too for away for Kerala, even with just 15 minutes played.
What followed was something Mumbai had been doing pretty well already this season. The 2-0 lead gave them the opportunity to control the game and they did just that. While it meant surrendering a bit of possession to the away side, but it hardly bothered the home side who almost never lost their defensive shape.
The back four were solid and very well protected by Sehnaj and Vadocz, while Forlan and Defederico, playing as inverted wingers, immediately dropped back to make it a five-man midfield every time the hosts appeared to lose control of the ball. It wasn't left to chance and it happened every single time.
"I think we weren't great in Goa. There were instances where we didn't fall back as a team and that shouldn't be the case. So today, there was a conscious decision that no matter who you are, or where you are (playing), you are going to come back and defend for the team. And when the leader, the captain does that, we all felt the same," Chhetri told Firstpost after the game.
The result wasn't shocking; Kerala didn't have a single shot on target in the first half. In fact, they hardly even had a sniff. Mumbai maintained that intensity and defensive shape again in the second half. The tactical discipline was immaculate as the wide players got back, the full-backs closed down relentlessly and the centre halves dealt with every cross that Kerala put in the box.
With Steve Coppell's men pushing forward to find a way back into the game, Mumbai had plenty of spaces to exploit and they did so with great efficiency. In the 62nd minute, a host of Mumbai players found their way into the box. The retreating Kerala defenders tried to plug all the gaps, but a patient passing move from the hosts saw Cafu lay it on a plate for an unmarked Forlan, who completed his hat-trick with a coolest of finishes.
The floodgates opened then, and midfielder Cafu, who had worked tirelessly all game, quite fittingly got on the scoresheet, with a scorching strike that flew into the top corner. The Brazilian thrived in his new role and earned praise from his manager post game.
"Today we thought we had to have one player in midfield to hold up the ball. Cafu did that very well. He aggregated well with our two defensive midfielders for the team. He gave us that extra bit. With Leo Costa's injury he got a chance and he took it well. What's good for him is that he played well for the entire 90 minutes," Guimares told reporters after the game.
With every player performing their duties perfectly, it was only in the 90th minute that the visitors got their first shot on target from open play - a hopeful long range effort from full-back Josu. It also took them 61 minutes to register their first shot on target, which was a tame effort from CK Vineeth from a set piece.
Despite having 19 points on the board, Mumbai aren't assured of a place in the semi-finals yet, but with such good defensive discipline been shown by the entire team and with a strong attack that's come alive just at the right moment, they are few flaws in the team at the moment.
Delhi Dynamos might have a few things to say, but Mumbai City FC are now the league's team to beat. The table shows that and the table never lies.