After two seasons of toil and disappointment, Mumbai City FC finally reached the promise land. A dominant display in a 2-0 win over defending champions Chennaiyin FC helped them become the first team this Indian Super League (ISL) season to book a slot in the semi-finals.
More importantly for Mumbai, it is the first time they have achieved to do so and they will be glad they done it in style. Seven goals without conceding a single in the last two games make for an impressive reading, and there's a feeling it's all coming together just at the right time for them.
However, Mumbai's rise this season has hardly been down to chance and everything from the club's recruitment to their on-field performances have been spot on and have contributed towards this result.
With the first step achieved, Mumbai will now be setting their sights on the big prize, and their recent exploits will provide them plenty of encouragement.
The problem with the short duration of the ISL is that teams barely get time to form a cohesive unit. In the ongoing season, few teams have appeared to function as strong units, and it's been either individual brilliance or costly errors that have decided the games.
But Mumbai have looked like a team that's been playing together for ages, especially of late. Having leaked just 8 goals in 13 matches, their defence has been solid since the first game. Their back four have performed exceptionally well, but what's been the key is that they have defended from the front, as an eleven.
Lucian Goian has been marshalling the Mumbai defense quite immaculately, but he was quick to stress the importance of defending as a team. “I am happy we had a great game, not only in defence. It’s not only about me, we defend as a team and attack as a team. Everybody is doing a good job and we have to be proud of what we have achieved till now," Goian told reporters after his side's 2-0 win over Chennaiyin.
Alxandre Guimaraes' side struggled for goals at the start of the campaign, with their defense often getting them over the line. But the star-studded Mumbai attack has come to life in the recent fixtures. After a switch from a 4-2-3-1, to a 4-3-3 in the last game against Kerala Blasters, their forwards have found a great deal of freedom with which they have blossomed into a potent force.
However what's unique about this Mumbai attack is the fluidity and flexibility that it's got. In the game against Kerala, Mumbai were highly particular about players keeping their positions. They were much more rigid in terms of the personnel. Sunil Chhetri always remained right on top as the striker while, Matias Defederico and Diego Forlan occupied the right and left flank respectively. There was little interchanging of roles as the front line was hell-bent on maintaining a particular shape.
It was a part of a plan top stop a Kerala Blasters side that scored five goals in their previous two matches, and stop them from playing their football.
Against Chennaiyin on Wednesday, Mumbai started with a similar 4-3-3 formation and the same personnel was deployed in those exact positions. However with the visitors matching the hosts in terms of system, Mumbai's threat was being nullified in the first quarter of the game.
Later Chhetri swapped roles with Forlan to play on the left flank, as the Uruguayan occupied the striker's role. While the Chennaiyin defence was wary of proper No 9 in Forlan lurking around them, Chhetri and Defederico started creating openings by running directly at the visitors' full backs. There were attempts of conjuring some intricate passing moved just before the half hour mark, but it failed to realise. However it was a signal that the Mumbai attackers had started to get into their groove and Chennaiyin needed to be careful.
After a brief spell of pressure from the home side, they were able to breach the champions' defence in the 32nd minute with a beautifully worked move. It all started when central midfielder Krisztian Vadocz stepped up the pitch and released Chhetri in the space between Chennaiyin's right back and centre back. The Indian captain had quietly tucked inside from the left side before the pass and the visitors were caught cold.
Then Chhetri's nimble feet, and a bit of luck with his cross that defected into the path of Defederico — who too had made a run inside the box from the right — did the trick as the Argentine smashed the ball into the net to give Mumbai the lead.
Their tails were up, their forwards seemed to know each other's exact positions and kept interchanging their roles. Unlike the previous game, Mumbai allowed it's forwards to have more freedom in terms of their positioning, thus making them more fluid. It was necessary against the defensive organisation of a Marco Materazzi side that had come to Mumbai to keep a clean sheet and try for a smash-and-grab kind of a win.
That plan was out of the window and getting back into the game without their chief attacking threat of Jeje Lalpekhlua, against a defence like Mumbai, was always going to be a big task.
"You can do that (player swapping roles) with smart players, intelligent players and players who believe. Sunil is that kind of player, so we changed a little bit today. Cafu too understood his role very well. So we are on the right track," coach Alexandre Guimaraes said after the game.
In the second half, Chennaiyin were forced to open up and go for it, leaving gaps for Mumbai to exploit. In the 60th minute, Mumbai made the most of it and doubled their lead. Once again, the move initiated from the left side where Chhetri and Cafu doubled up to create problems for Chennaiyin.
A slightly heavy cross evaded everyone in the box, but found Forlan who had drifted a bit wide. The Uruguayan showed great awareness and cut it back first time for Vadocz, who was in bit of a space at the edge of the box. The Hungarian's first touch with his chest was excellent and left his marker for dead. A brilliant finish followed and Mumbai were on their way.
As Chennai stepped up their attack, Mumbai had altered their approach and shored up things at the back. They were playing on the break and exposing the visitors time and again. Twice Forlan played in Chhetri who drifted inside from his position, but the forward couldn't apply the finishing touches.
There was no harm done for Mumbai as they efficiently closed the win. Their smooth tweaks upfront in the first half proved crucial. It was a great sign for Mumbai going into the final game with Delhi Dynamos and then the play-offs as this kind of fluidity in attack and flexibility in personnel is sure to give opposition managers nightmares.
In addition, the likes of Sony Norde, Jackichand Singh who could just walk into the other teams barely got a chance to play in the last few matches. Even in defence, Sehnaj Singh played in the full back position, when Aiborland Khongjee and Ashutosh Mehta had to wait in the wings. There is bound to be greater selection headache for Guimaraes when Leo Costa returns to fitness, but the Costa Rican wouldn't mind this one bit.
"When you have this kind of competition between players, its the best thing can happen. They (players) know that the players playing in the starting eleven are doing very well. After all these days, right from pre-season, I knew that everybody wants to fight for a position (in the team). And when you have strength on your bench it is what every coach wants," he suggested after the game.
With their first goal of qualifying for the semifinals achieved, and ten-day break ahead of them before they play their last game, Mumbai can afford to relax a bit. But with this kind of flexibility in personnel and the depth in their ranks, they can be excused for dreaming big. Really big!
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Updated Date: Nov 24, 2016 13:28:22 IST