Mumbai City FC, after being down in the dumps in their first two Indian Super League (ISL) campaigns, emerged the strongest force in the league's third season. A top of the table finish goes some way in proving their supremacy in 2016, but it is their impeccable consistency and sustained progress across the 14 games that really shines through.
Mumbai never lost grip of the top four spots this season and have looked good for a semi-final place since day one. While goals were slightly hard to come by for them, it was their ability to shut out opponents on a regular basis that made the real difference.
Under the guidance of new coach Alexandre Guimaraes, Mumbai went from conceding 26 goals in the previous campaign to just eight this season. This astonishing turn of events also yielded eight clean sheets in the process, a record at this stage of the ISL in the three years of the competition. Eight is also the least number of goals any side have conceded at the end of an entire season, let alone the group stages, adding further weight to the side's resurgence in ISL-3.
One of the prime reasons for that was some astute business that Mumbai did before the season. Instead of going for over-aged foreign stars of yesteryear, the Ranbir Kapoor-owned outfit signed foreign players who were still in the thick of things and with an experience of playing in Asia. Among their recruits, Lucian Goian stood out the most as the Romanian defender emerged the leader in the Mumbai back line, galvanising it into an indomitable guard.
The 33-year-old, who played under Guimaraes at Tianjin Teda in the Chinese Super League, completely warmed up to the ISL and has made the most number of tackles in the league so far – 67 to be precise.
His aerial prowess and the ability to organise those around him has made experts, fans and opponent players adjudge him the best defender in the league so far. And with the experienced Anwar Ali partnering Goian ably, the Mumbai defence is difficult to break down. Also, Sena Ralte has grasped his chance extremely well and justified his selection as the side's first choice left-back. It's only at right-back that Mumbai have rotated their players, with Aiborlang Khongjee, Sehnaj Singh and Anwar all playing at those positions. However, that has had no effect on the solidity of the rearguard.
"One player that’s doing outstanding at the moment is Goian. Anwar too, when he had the opportunity, has done well. Gerson played very well few times as a defender. I think among these players they are playing some good games, playing really hard. Every time they had opportunity to play they have done really well," captain Diego Forlan said at a press conference after his side sealed qualification for the semi-finals.
"In the midfield, Vadocz has been a key player as well. Playing every 90 minutes, scoring goals, assisting, and then on the side, it was Pranoy (Halder) who’s now injured, but Sehnaj has come in and played on the right side and doing well. So they are good defensive players that are hard to play against and get past," he added.
It was only in the humdinger against Delhi Dyanmos that Mumbai let in more than one goal in a game, but one can put that down to the erratic nature of that particular game.
After being pointed out by Sir Alex Ferguson that defences win championships, while attacks only win you games, Mumbai City FC seem to be the latest team trying to vindicate those words.
However, there were times when Mumbai's attack couldn't win them games, and in an odd game where the defence was punished for a few of their errors, the team had to taste defeat. Such reverses crept up every 3-4 games for Mumbai and it held back their bid to seal semi-final qualification at a canter.
Despite sparks of brilliance from the likes of Matias Defederico, Forlan and Sony Norde, Mumbai struggled to find a cohesion among their strike force that relied on individuals to produce magic.
Eventually, after seeing his side net just nine times in 11 games, despite the addition of Sunil Chhetri in the mix, Guimaraes decided to ditch his 4-2-3-1 system and go for a more attacking 4-3-3 formation. The tweak did wonders. Putting Cafu alongside the Vadocz and Gerson in midfield gave the Mumbai midfield the much needed energy and liberated the talented trio upfront,
Forlan, Chhetri and Defederico constantly interchanged roles to wreck havoc, leaving the opponent defenders for dead. It made it impossible for teams to pick them up and the added thrust of Cafu and Vadocz shored up the numbers in attack. Mumbai hit top form in the 5-0 thrashing of an in-form Kerala Blasters, and put up a similar performance in the dominant 2-0 win over Chennaiyin FC that sealed their semi-final place.
The famed attackers of Mumbai clicked as a unit, and the ability of each of them to turn games on its head makes them a dangerous proposition.
Guimaraes' experiments meant he stumbled upon a combination that worked, but more importantly, a combination that won and won well. Heading into the semi-finals, the Costa Rican manager has slowly ironed out all the flaws in his side one by one. As his team prepares to face Atletico de Kolkata in the first leg of the semi-final on Saturday, Guimaraes will have a winning unit to rely on, unlike just his defence when his side won in Kolkata at the league stage.
Chhetri, who was a part of the Mumbai City FC side that fell off the cliff after winning three consecutive games last season, highlighted the unity in this team as a reason for their good show under Guimaraes. The Indian captain, who was not appreciated enough for his efforts last season by Nicolas Anelka, hailed the impact made by marquee player Forlan.
"There are few reasons why we are doing really well. One of the reason is Diego Forlan. He has been very influential. Not only has the fact (been) that he’s so good on the pitch, but off the field too. He mingles with all the players; his experience come very handy. He’s a voice in training as well," Chhetri told reporters during a press conference recently.
"We have got a very able coach and a coaching staff which really helps. We are in sync with what the coach wants and the players understands (that). We are all heading in the same direction. More than often you will get success if this happens and we are sitting very comfortably at the top of the table," he added.
This unity which Chhetri talked about with particular pride is visible in the way the team functions on the pitch, especially when they don't have the ball. Even the likes of Forlan, Chhetri and Defederico have formed the first line of defence on occasions. Their defensive organisation is second to none and their semi-finals opponents Atletico de Kolkata, who have been struggling for goals all season long, would be sweating over running into them.
No team in the semi-final looks as complete as Mumbai City FC at the moment and their indomitable defence, coupled with a plethora of match-winners, build a very strong case for them to enjoy the favourites tag.
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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2016 12:25:38 IST