Chennai: Mumbai City FC don't have too many good memories from their two previous Indian Super League (ISL) campaigns, but the few that they do have wouldn't be from matches against Chennaiyin FC. The Chennai-based side has proven to be Mumbai City's worst nemesis and trips down south would perhaps rank among the worst days the club has faced in its brief history.
Having suffered a 5-1 thrashing in Chennai in a dismal first season, Mumbai City's 3-0 defeat at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in the second season all but ended their hopes of reaching the play-offs. They were outplayed, outclassed and outmuscled by a Chennaiyin side that went on to lift the trophy a few weeks later.
Marco Materazzi's men have scored 15 goals against Mumbai City in four matches, while conceding just one. Chennaiyin have proved to be Mumbai City FC's bogey team in every measure.
What perhaps makes the Mumbai City FC's memories of Chennai all the more bitter was that a huge downpour in the city after last season's match left them stranded there for two days, and they only managed to reach Kolkata – the venue for their next match – on the day of the match itself.
The weather gods may be a lot kinder to the visitors this time around as the city has mostly seen clear skies in the days leading up to the match. But more importantly for Mumbai City FC, their opponents have been far from their ruthless best this season. The hosts go into Wednesday's clash with question marks over their attacking prowess.
Having lost Stiven Mendoza and Elano – two former golden boot winners – the Chennaiyin FC attack has lost quite a bit of its bite. Chennaiyin have managed to score just twice in their last three matches and were frustrated by Kerala Blasters in their last home match. Mendoza had scored 13 times last season and Chennaiyin haven't managed to fill his boots despite the signing of Dudu Omagbemi in attack.
It's a concern that coach Materazzi acknowledged, but said he was happy keeping a clean sheet and nicking 1-0 wins as long as his side made it to the play-offs.
"I don’t care if we win by two goals or one goal. I would sign right now if they tell me that you will win the game by one goal. What matters to me is the making the play-offs and that’s all we are focused on," the Italian manager said at the pre-match press conference in Chennai.
Injuries to key Chennaiyin players may also aid Mumbai City FC's chances on Wednesday. Marquee player John Arne Riise, midfielder Hans Mulder and Thoi Singh are set to miss that match due to injuries. While Materazzi was banking on the Dutchman Mulder to provide strength in attack in Mendoza's absence, an injury to the hardworking midfielder Thoi has meant that Chennaiyin would miss his energy in the middle of the park. Thoi was the league's top tackler last season and was among the top Indian players on show.
"We lost some strength in our attack as Mendoza didn’t come this season. We have Mulder who could have given some quality going forward but unfortunately he’s injured," Materazzi said.
"Last year we had more runners, but maybe not the quality. This year with Baljit, who won’t run 15 kilometres every game like Thoi, but he’s got the quality we need right now," he added.
In the Mumbai camp, on the other hand, there has been a significant upturn since last season, and under coach Alexandre Guimares, the team has looked very steady and has shown plenty of promise. Marquee player Diego Forlan has been among the goals and has made useful contributions whenever called upon.
Chennaiyin coach Materazzi hailed his former Inter Milan teammate as a 'champion' and said that his side will be extra motivated to prove that they can stop a player of his calibre.
"To stop Forlan you need an entire team. One player is not going to be enough to do that. He is a type of player who will score for sure if you make a mistake," the Italian said.
"I think what motivates us is that each and every player in my team knows that it’s an honour to play against a champion like him. I feel it’s a positive thing because they want to show everyone and show me in the first place that they have what it takes to counter a champion like him," he added.
Guimares was content with Forlan's contribution and suggested that he has done everything that is expected of a marquee player.
"I think he’s doing very well. When he plays, usually we win. When he plays, usually he scores or makes an assist. When he plays, the other team is more aware of him. That’s good for us. When he plays, the TV ratings are high, the attendance in the stadium is better. When he plays, our players are more motivated. What else can you ask from a marquee player?" the Mumbai coach said.
However, despite Forlan's heroics, it is on the defensive side that things have really changed for the good for Mumbai City FC. After being one of the worst teams defensively in the first two editions of the ISL, Mumbai have just allowed six goals in seven matches this season and have kept three clean sheets already.
The only concern that Mumbai City FC fans may have with their team would be their inconsistency in front of the goal. Barring the match against Delhi Dynamos, Mumbai City FC have not managed to score more than one goal in a match and their wastefulness meant they slumped to defeats against Kerala Blasters and FC Goa, both of whom are in the bottom half of the table right now.
However, coach Guimares played down that concern, claiming that goals haven't necessarily spelled success for his side this campaign. "The only game that we scored more than one goal we drew. So this isn’t the comparison that you can make. When we score one goal, most of the times we don’t lose. When we don’t concede we win. That’s the mathematics that we do," said the Costa Rican manager.
Mumbai City FC have enjoyed a week-long break after their 1-0 success in Kolkata, which ensures that will go into the match against Chennaiyin feeling fresh. Guimares hailed it as a "blessing" for his team.
"We used the break to recharge the batteries. Everybody knows that we had a tough schedule, that before the game in Kolkata, we had at least three-four of our regular players injured; so we took our time to recover those players and to introduce some other ideas to the players for the second round of fixtures. So I think the week (off) came like a blessing for us," he said.
So with good form, players possibly returning from injuries and "recharged batteries", as Guimaraes pointed out, Mumbai City FC for once go into a match in Chennai looking the more settled out of the two sides. In the past they have found no joy against Materazzi's side, but this may be their best chance to end that hoodoo.