ISL 2016: Mumbai City FC, Kerala Blasters eye final play-off push in battle of gritty defences
As the race for semi-finals enters the final lap, both Mumbai City FC and Kerala Blasters will look to trigger one final push on Saturday.
"Attack wins you games, defense wins you titles."
If Alex Ferguson's famous quote is anything to go by, both Mumbai City FC and Kerala Blasters have reason to be positive. Sitting in second and third places on the Indian Super League (ISL) 2016 standings respectively, Mumbai and Kerala top the charts when it comes to the meanest defences in the league. They have conceded just eight goals each, Mumbai having played 11 games as compared to Kerala's 10. The two have kept eight clean sheets among them, so one could be pardoned for expecting a goalless draw when the two sides lock horns on Saturday.
However, with just six points separating the top team from the bottom placed, a share of spoils would be more beneficial to the others than those battling on Saturday.
"Every game now is crucial for every team, because every team is capable of still being in the play-offs," said Kerala Blasters manager Steve Coppell, ahead of his side's game in Mumbai.
"I think in the first two-thirds of this season, emphasis was on not getting beaten, whereas now the emphasis has to be on winning. Maybe the remaining games of the season will be little bit more open than the games that have happened so far," he added.
Coppell's words may hint towards a gear shift that the Blasters are contemplating against their steely counterparts. Their performance in the last two games may already be a strong evidence of them upping the ante. It may come as a pleasant shift for the neutrals, but fans of Mumbai City FC would be concerned by their immediate opponents' almost meteoric rise.
Mumbai have failed to find the net in their last two games and their record on home soil doesn't make the greatest of readings. In the four games at the refurbished Andheri Sports Complex stadium, the hosts have recorded just one win and scored just twice. Kerala, on the other hand, have lost two of their five games on the road.
Mumbai City FC coach Alexandre Guimares wasn't too concerned with his team's lack of goals and didn't shy from reiterating his faith in his famed set of attackers, which include the likes of Diego Forlan, Sunil Chhetri, Sony Norde and Matias Defederico.
"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," said the Costa Rican. "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.
But he urged his players to cut down on the glaring mistakes that have cost them points on home turf. "Here in Mumbai, we have played well. We just didn't get the points. But it's because we made big errors. These were not those kind of games that we are disappointed with, as we created enough chances to win. The only game among all the games that we didn't play well was when we lost away in Kerala. So we have to reduce these errors, because I know we will have chances (to score)," Guimares suggested.
Steve Coppell's men have been known to come out stronger in the second halves of matches; eight out of their nine goals have been second-half efforts. On the flip side, that's also been the time when Mumbai have been vulnerable. They have also conceded seven of their eight goals after the break. So, it will be key for Mumbai to start well and get the home crowd going, as allowing the Blasters' rearguard to settle down in their defensive shape could prove to be problematic for Forlan and Co.
Coppell is not expected to tinker too much with a side that's trying to be only the second team to win three in a row this year. The arrival of CK Vineeth and Rino Anto from Bengaluru FC have provided them with much-needed balance, and the 61-year-old manager hailed the duo's impact. "For us, it was like signing two new players. It was psychologically important and of course, performance wise it has made a big difference. The two players who are very capable, two players who can certainly play in most teams. So we were delighted to have them," said the former Manchester United winger, likely to name an unchanged XI that featured in the win over Chennaiyin a week ago.
Guimares, on the other hand, is yet to nail down a potent combination in attack. The arrival of Sunil Chhetri has added to his options, but the Indian captain hasn't had the same impact on the Mumbai side as his Bengaluru FC teammate Vineeth has had on Kerala. Despite the lack of goals, however, Guimares is likely to persist with Chhetri as the front man again with Forlan likely to be deployed behind him.
He also revealed how Uruguayan attacker Forlan has enjoyed playing in the No 10 role, and how playing in the hole behind the striker gives him the freedom to express himself. "He feels more liberated in the No 10 position. He enjoys playing there more because he feels the possibilities of being involved in the game. He is like a free spirit; he likes to fly. For these kind of players, you have to allow them the freedom," Guimares said.
Norde and Defederico are expected to provide width for the hosts, with Krisztian Vadocz and Sehnaj Singh forming the central midfield pivot. It seems that Mumbai's highly successful back-line comprising Sena Ralte, Lucian Goian, Gerson Viera and Aiborlang Khongjee won't be tampered with. Amrinder Singh, who impressed in the 0-0 draw in Goa, is also likely to start ahead of Albino Gomes in goal.
In a battle of two unrelenting defences, there is more to be won than lost. Three points for either team will put them on the cusp of qualification. With all eight teams cramped for space on the league table, any cushion over the teams below could prove to be critical. As the semi-final race enters its final lap, both Mumbai City FC and Kerala Blasters will look to trigger one final push on Saturday.
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