“There are no favourites at all in the league,” Mumbai City FC coach Alexandre Guimaraes declared on Tuesday in the pre-match conference before his side’s clash against FC Goa. And truer words have not been spoken.
With just four games left for most teams in the third edition of the Indian Super League, it’s still almost impossible to predict which clubs will end up qualifying for the semifinals. Every club, on paper, still has a mathematical chance of making the knockouts, and the league is set for an intriguing, tight finish. The Blues are currently third with 15 points from 10 games while their opponents Goa are languishing at the bottom with 10 points.
"Look, the way the tournament has been so far, it shows that everyone can beat everyone. We are in a better position than Goa but they had a fantastic win in the last game which allows them to continue to fight. When you have to play against a team with that kind of spirit, we know it’s going to be a tough game,” Guimaraes elaborated.
Mumbai slumped to a last-gasp 1-0 defeat against FC Pune City in their last match, due to a defensive lapse by their goalkeeper. Their defensive frailties are compounded by their lack of goals in recent matches. Despite having the best attacking players in the league, Mumbai have managed to score two or more goals only once this season.
However, the Costa Rican coach is in no mood to settle for a draw at the Fatorda Stadium. He insists his team will attack from the word go to obtain all three points on Wednesday. “First, we want to as soon as possible recover the points that we lost in our last game. I hope to be in the top four after this match and my focus remains to get the three points. Both coaches like to play attacking football and have the players to attack. Let’s see who puts (the ball) in,” he said.
While the team was boosted by Sunil Chhetri’s return against Pune, he along with Diego Forlan failed to make an impact in front of goal. Sony Norde, another attacking option for Mumbai, did not play because of fitness concerns and Leo Costa – Mumbai’s playmaker in the midfield – limped off with an injury in their last match.
Mumbai need to get their frontline going and it will interesting to see what team Guimaraes decides to put up against Goa. The manager chose to play his cards close to his chest. Giving very little away, he stressed that the team might have picked some more injury concerns. "Every game for us is a real headache. Before we traveled here, I thought I have all players ready but I don't now. With the travel here and everything, we've had some situations to solve with some key players so let’s see who can be 100 percent ready. I really cannot say which players I can start.”
If Guimaraes thinks he has selection headaches, they are nothing compared to the dilemma Goa find themselves in. Luciano Sobrosa, Rafael Dumas and Sahil Tavora are all suspended and join a long list of players missing through injury. The Gaurs were forced to play nine Indians in their last match due to the lack of foreign players and head coach Zico hinted that he might do the same against Mumbai.
"Like I have always said, I always play those who are in best condition - 100 percent. So we have a lot of foreigners who have injuries and so we can't put them at risk. A large number of fit players are Indians and if they are best prepared, I'm going to put them in. For me there is no difference between foreigners and Indians. Of course with new players, we have to play differently and be more cautious," Zico said before their must-win encounter.
Despite spending almost all of this season in the last place, Goa still have a shot of making the knockouts. They know that they need to win every game henceforth to control their own fate. They will be very dangerous opponents in such a situation and the visitors will need to be wary of their counter-attacking abilities. Indian striker Robin Singh and local lad Romeo Fernandes combined well to lead their team to a stoppage-time victory over NorthEast United in their previous fixture. Gregory Arnolin and Richarlyson return from red-card suspensions for the Gaurs, and could provide some much-needed reinforcements.
The battle on Wednesday is all set to be one of attrition, with both teams scrambling for a semifinal spot. "All the games ahead of us are must win now because of the situation we are in. All the players are conscious of it and we have kept up the spirit. For those who are in a better position on the table, it's a must win for them too. If Mumbai lose tomorrow they will only be two points ahead of us,” the Brazilian coach minced no words in the pre-match press conference.
Zico finds himself in a similar situation as he did in 2014 and knows what it takes to get his team over the line. In the first year, Goa won three of their last four fixtures to ultimately finish second at the end of the league stage. He will be hoping his team can string together a similar run this season as well.
Meanwhile, Mumbai have collected 11 off their 15 points on the road in 2016, the most by any team so far. However, they have managed only one win at home. Despite having the luxury of playing their next three games in Mumbai, the team have rarely made their home advantage count. This is why it’s even more significant for the Blues to win on Wednesday.
Attain all three points, and Mumbai would be on the brink of a knockout place. However, if they slip up against the 2015 finalists, they could suddenly find themselves in a very tough spot, with other clubs snapping on their heels.