Mumbai City FC didn't really end their hoodoo against Chennaiyin FC, holding the defending champions to a 1-1 draw at the Marina Arena on Wednesday. But the draw did end a run of four straight defeats against the Chennai outfit.
However, for most parts of the game, it did appear that Chennaiyin's dominance over Mumbai would continue; the home side looked far sharper, eager and hungrier to clinch three points.
The only reason Mumbai got their first points over Marco Materazzi in three seasons of the Indian Super League was a stunning 30-yard strike from Brazilian Leo Costa, a goal worthy of winning any game in the world. And although it didn't win Mumbai City FC the match, the end result did feel like one.
Mumbai were second best for at least three quarters of the game on Wednesday, and Chennaiyin managed to get behind their defence on more than one occasion. The visitors' midfield couldn't cope with the precision and tenacity of the hosts. Chennaiyin were able to reach their front men centrally and the wide players played off them.
Mumbai City FC maintained a compact shape, and were designed to concede position in wide areas. Their full backs had a tough time countering the width provided by Maurizio Peluso and Thoi Singh. But Mumbai's centre-back pairing for Lucian Goian and Anwar Ali did very well to deal with aerial crosses and thus counter the threat of Jeje Lalpekhlua.
Mumbai coach Alexandre Guimares pointed out after the game that the first half performance of his team was enough to ensure they wouldn't lose the game, despite seeing less of the ball. The hosts had few chances of note in a drab first half, and their two shots on target weren't very threatening.
Mumbai though had been completely shut out by the defending champions, who did extremely well to nullify the threat of Sony Norde. The Haitian ran riot in the previous game against Atletico de Kolkata, but was kept quiet by Bernard Mendy and Eli Sabla on Wednesday. With no shots on target in the first half, the visitors had their hands full just containing their hosts.
Chennaiyin made one key change at half-time, throwing Dudu Omagbemi in the mix to add to their threat upfront and thus give Mumbai City's centre back pairing a bit more to do. The hosts outfit made an energetic start to the half and were rewarded withing six minutes of the restart. Jeje headed home a corner at the near post after Mumbai's defence seemed unsettled by Dudu's presence.
With a 20,000-plus crowd cheering them on, there was an obvious spring to Chennaiyin's step. Their movement became more crisp, the confidence among the players were showing, and Mumbai City were barely hanging on. The failure of Gerson Viera and Kriztian Vadocz to get hold on the ball in central areas meant the pressure was on them and Diego Forlan and Co were left isolated.
Mumbai then made a change after going down, and sent Jackichand Singh to provide them with some width, but he, like the other Mumbai City forwards, was left isolated as Chennaiyin kept winning the ball back very quickly. Coach Guimares then threw Leo Costa on to help them gain a bit of control in the middle and that move paid dividends.
But before the Brazilian could stamp his class on the game, Chennaiyin missed a glorious opportunity to extend their lead. In the 70th minute, Mumbai lost the ball in their own half, leaving their defence in a three versus three situation. Some clever play from Jeje sent Dudu clear on goal. With just the goalkeeper to beat, the Nigerian tried to slide the ball past the onrushing Albino Gomes, but in trying to do so, placed the ball a bit too close to the young goalkeeper. Gomes, with still a lot to do, make a top-class reaction save.
There was disbelief on the faces of Chennaiyin's players and their supporters, as they were left wondering how the scoreline had remained 1-0. Perhaps the miss was more costly than it appeared. It gave Chennaiyin FC's players the feeling that it may not be their day in front of goal, and hence dropped slightly deeper to see off the remainder of the time.
This where Mumbai City did a credible job and immediately added pressure on the hosts. Post the 75-minute mark, with Chennaiyin dropping deeper, the likes of Leo Costa began stroking the ball with purpose and Mumbai's midfield found more space. Goian struck the crossbar from a Forlan freekick in the 77th minute, sending out further warnings to the Chennaiyin rearguard.
But just when one thought that the hosts had done enough to see out the match, Costa came up with a moment of magic two minutes from time. Having found some space ahead of the Chennaiyin back four, the Brazilian found the back of the net with a screamer. The stadium was stunned, the Chennaiyin players couldn't believe it, but Mumbai City had snatched a point from a game they had been outplayed in.
Many would consider Mumbai City fortunate to leave Chennai with a point, but the fact remains that they made the most of a 15-minute spell where they were the better team. They took the one chance that came their way and grabbed a point against all odds.
"I don’t think our win was fortunate. I feel we made few adjustments after they scored. From that moment, we started playing in their half. In the second half, our game put us in such a position (to draw). We made a few adjustments and we played very well. We took our chance and I think it's a fair result," Mumbai City FC's coach said at the post-match press conference.
"We took some risks. First we put Jaki (Jackichand Singh) to play on the right side, so we get more width and then with Leo coming, we had plenty of the ball on the ground and we started to move the ball better. They moved a bit deep after we put Thiago upfront and Sony on the left. The movements that we created were very good for the team, and it changed the way we usually attack," he added.
What Guimares said about the substitutions highlighted the quality of options Mumbai City FC had on the bench, and the way they were able to turn the tide against the champions in their own backyard suggested they've found their rhythm.
One could divide the game in two parts: Chennaiyin FC dominated the first 75 minutes, and Mumbai City FC came back into the contest for the final 15. For the visitors, those 15 minutes of play were enough to make a mark. That's exactly what Chennaiyin couldn't do.
Mumbai City are second on the points table, behind Atletico de Kolkata only on goal difference. Wednesday's unimpressive yet effective performance was proof that they belong here. There will be times when they need to play better, but like every top team around the world, it's even more important to pick up points when you don't do so. Mumbai City did that in Chennai and showed they have all the hallmarks of a top team.