After a slightly shaky start to their campaign, Jorge Costa's Mumbai City FC side came into imperious form towards the end of October, ploughing through the Indian Super League (ISL) like a runaway train and going on a nine-game unbeaten run, which saw them demolish Kerala Blasters in a 6-1 mauling and snap first-placed Bengaluru FC's perfect record with a resolute 1-0 win.
Fast forward two weeks to present day, and things aren't looking quite as peachy for the Portuguese head coach. Successive defeats to play-off hopefuls Jamshedpur FC and FC Goa have seen the gap between Mumbai and the chasing pack whittled down to three points — a divide that could be bridged by NorthEast United FC when they visit the Islanders at the Mumbai Football Arena on Wednesday.
However, NorthEast head into this fixture with their own list of problems, having failed to win an away game since late November. Their squad has also been hamstrung by a series of injuries to crucial players, leaving head coach Eelco Schattorie's substitute bench looking a little threadbare.
Goals have also been a major stumbling block for NorthEast, with the Highlanders having scored only 19 goals in their 15 matches so far, most of which have come courtesy of former Paris-Saint Germain striker Bartholomew Ogbeche, who leads the league's scoring charts with his tally of 11 goals. In comparison, every other top-five team has scored upwards of 20 goals, giving NorthEast some cause for concern.
Despite losing only three matches, one less than opponents Mumbai, NorthEast have drawn six of their matches so far and have struggled to hold on in key matches, perhaps best exemplified by their draw against league-leaders Bengaluru FC in December, where they were denied three points by a 92nd-minute Chencho Gyeltshen equaliser.
Schattorie has often pointed to these issues as reasons for NorthEast United's inability to convert draws into victories over this season, lamenting his lack of squad depth time and again.
Tuesday's pre-match press conference was no different, with Schattorie persistently reiterating his concerns, saying, "We’ve lost only two times this season, but we’ve had a lot of draws. Against Bengaluru and Delhi, we played really well and created many chances, which is a good sign. In all the games that we’ve drawn, there have been issues which have forced us to play without our strongest starting XI."
"We’ve lost our goalkeeper (TP Rehenesh), we’ve lost our centre-back Mislav Komorski for the rest of the season. Other teams are able to make quality changes when people get injured, but our squad’s depth is just not on that level," he added.
The issue of injuries has also plagued Mumbai in their recent defeats, albeit to a lesser extent than their opponents. Continuing on in the almost dangerously pragmatic style of his former manager Jose Mourinho, Costa has eschewed the lofty ideals of 'beautiful football' and has impressed onto his Mumbai team a need for simplicity, a formula that seemed to be working for him until quite recently.
The Portuguese coach's plan of action has largely hinged on the pace of attackers Modou Sougou and Arnold Issoko, who have a combined 11 goals and five assists between them, to get behind defences and latch onto passes from the duo of Rafael Bastos and Paulo Machado.
Unfortunately, the dependency of Costa's particular brand of football on this quartet of international talent has caused the team to struggle when one of them is injured. Against FC Goa, the absence of Sougou meant that there was no-one in the box with the ability to convert half-chances, resulting in Mumbai's inability to score. An injury to Issoko was felt even more keenly in the following game against Jamshedpur FC, in a match where opportunities were few and far between. Without the irrepressible Congolese winger to force through a cross or two, Mumbai failed to register a single shot on target for the first time this season.
While both Sougou and Issoko are back in contention for the starting XI against NorthEast United, the continued absence of Subasish Bose in defence will be a matter of concern for Mumbai, especially since their defensive cornerstone Lucian Goian is also out, having picked up his fourth yellow card of the season against Jamshedpur.
With just three games remaining in the ISL's league stage, a measly four points separate second-placed Mumbai from Jamshedpur in fifth, meaning that this fixture is crucial for the play-off hopes of both parties involved.
The pressure of getting positive results is one that NorthEast coach Schattorie is well aware of, with the Dutchman saying, "The next three games are all or nothing. When we started from 5 January, I told my players, the phase you are going into now, it can be over within a second. Your mindset has to be completely different from what it was at the beginning of the season, you cannot afford to make certain mistakes."
"Jamshedpur are very close, ATK are still a little bit away, but they’re also close. At this stage, it’s all about winning. It’s not necessary how you win, but you have to get the results," he added.
Wednesday's game will likely see a shift in the race for the top-four, with all possible outcomes potentially spelling doom for either Mumbai, NorthEast or in the case of a draw, for both. FC Goa, currently in third place, have the advantage of a game in hand, whereas Jamshedpur play host to Pune at the JRD Tata Sports Complex, where they are yet to be beaten this season. In sixth, ATK are also potentially still in the race, since two of their remaining matches are against fellow play-off rivals Mumbai and Goa. With the stakes higher than ever before, it's now up to whoever wants it the most to make their move.
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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2019 13:29:18 IST