Mumbai City FC went into the first leg of the semi-final with the best defensive record in the history of the Indian Super League (ISL), facing an Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) side that had the least number of wins for a team that has ever made it to the semi-final of the tournament. The Kolkata outfit had just one win at home all season, also a first for a team finishing in the top four.
However, in football, past achievements count for little and it was proven once again at the Rabindra Sarovar stadium, where Atletico grabbed a rare home victory, putting three past a Mumbai side that had conceded only eight goals in 14 matches before that. The result underlined the distinction between the two phases of the competition and why any team finishing in the top four has an equal chance of becoming champions.
While a one-goal deficit wasn't something Mumbai were hoping to take back from the game, what could hurt them most had nothing to do with the five goals that were scored. Mumbai's inspirational leader and marquee player Diego Forlan was sent off after getting two yellow cards in the game, thereby ruling him out of the second leg in Mumbai on Tuesday.
More than his five goals for the side, it was his presence that made a real difference for Mumbai as he held their attack together and every attack seemed to go through him. Mumbai's results without the Uruguayan superstar doesn't make for a great reading and that, along with the one-goal deficit after the first leg of the semi-final, makes the Atletico the favourites to reach the final in Kochi.
Mumbai have failed to win a single game out of the three that they went in without the services of Forlan, which includes the 1-1 draw with Atletico in Mumbai earlier. A repeat of that result will be enough for the visitors to make their second final in three years.
Another fact that works in favour of Atletico is their ability to avoid defeats. In the 15 matches they have played this season, Jose Molina's men have lost just twice, drawn eight times and won on five occasions. Both those defeats have been by a single goal margin and a similar result after 120 minutes in the second leg of the semi-final will lead to penalties. Mumbai, though, would be drawing confidence from the fact that one of those defeats for Atletico had come against them.
Molina, however, is refusing to dwell on the past and is confident of his side's ability to produce the goods in the present. "We have lost just two matches and that’s good. To lose only twice in 15 matches is something really good," Molina said at the pre-match press conference.
"But tomorrow is a different match. What we did in the past is what we did in the past. If we go to the final it will be because we would have played a good match on Tuesday, not because what we did before. I live in the present, not in the past. The past is the past, we will try to fight tomorrow for 90 minutes, try to win, if we can’t win, try to draw because with a draw we will be in the final in Kochi," the former Barcelona assistant coach added.
While Atletico would be tempted to sit back and play for a draw, Molina suggested his side won't be altering their approach despite the advantage his team enjoys.
"If we have spaces, we will try to score, of course. But our mentality right now is the same as the first leg. We are going to try to win the match tomorrow like we did in Kolkata," Molina said.
"We will try to do the same. Good defence, with intensity, good press, keep the ball, move the ball fast, try to reach the opponent box and score goals," he added.
Mumbai coach Alexandre Guimaraes, who saw his side concede three goals in a match for just the second time this season, felt his side must show more intensity for a game of such magnitude as a part of a few things his team must do better from the first leg.
"We have some things to resolve. The first thing is about intensity. I was talking with the players the day before that in these kind of games you have to play with a different intensity, not just physical, but also mental," Guimaraes said ahead of the second leg of the semi-final.
The Costa Rican also warned his team against "committing suicide" by losing their organisation while trying to chase the game. "We know we have to play very smart because the situation is not a situation where (we) have to go all out and commit suicide because it’s just one goal – the difference," he said.
"We have to play better than we played (in the) last game and I still believe, like I said after the game, that we are still alive. We have our chance and we will fight as hard as we can to get to the final," Guimaraes added.
It will be interesting to see how Mumbai line up in Forlan's absence. Sony Norde seems the most likely candidate to replace the influential Uruguayan. The Haitian particularly impressed in Mumbai's 1-0 win over Atletico in October and Mumbai supporters will be hoping for a similar show from Norde who can be absolutely unplayable on his day.
The front quartet could comprise of Sunil Chhetri, Matias Defederico, Cafu and Norde, but it remains unclear which player will play in what position until the kick-off. This unpredictability could work in the hosts' favour as it will keep Atletico guessing.
The rest of the Mumbai team that has been so consistent pick themselves and their rearguard will be hoping to get their solidity back for the crucial second leg of the semi-final.
Guimaraes felt it was difficult to size up the effects of Forlan's absence before the game, while portraying faith in those who would play in his place.
"Everyone is motivated, excited and the ones who are going to play in his place, I don’t have any doubt that they will do the best, to help us to get through. It is difficult for me to predict whether the team is going to suffer or not due to his (Forlan) absence. We can talk about that after the game. But if you look at the games that he didn’t play, like the game against ATK here, we performed well," Guimaraes suggested.
"Now he (Forlan) is trying to push all the players to do their best, to motivate them and give him a chance to play the final," he said highlighting Forlan's role off the field.
Molina confirmed that centre-back Arnab Mondal is ruled out with an injury, but heaped praise on former Mumbai defender Kinshuk Debnath who is likely to take his place in the Atletico line-up. That apart, the Spaniard may opt to stick with the same players that helped them to this advantage.
The Mumbai supporters will be the key in helping their team turn this deficit around and coach Guimaraes is hoping for a packed stadium on Tuesday. He might just get his wish fulfilled as the General Stand and Premier General Stand at the Andheri Sports Complex were sold out a day before the game and we might see a record attendance for Mumbai this season on Tuesday.
The home side would also not get any advantage of scoring the two goals away from home as the ISL does not follow the away goal's rule. That leaves Mumbai needing a two-goal win to progress to the final. A one-goal win for the hosts will take the game to extra time, and penalties, if the aggregate scores remain level after 120 minutes.
With a place in the final up for grabs, every inch will be fought for and neither team would be willing to relent. While the situation favours the visitors, Mumbai's form this season will keep them interested. There is little to choose between the two teams and it could be a marathon second leg that could go very deep into the evening.
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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2016 13:33:10 IST