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Monday, January 25, 2021

Halftime in ISL: Mumbai’s masterclass, Bengaluru’s woes and East Bengal’s ‘Bright’ future

Just a year back, Mumbai was a flailing club. Not able to fill out an 8500-seater stadium in the heart of Andheri, a spot in the playoffs was always the goal but never a certainty.

Written by Shashank Nair | Updated: January 13, 2021 12:06:55 pm
ISL, Mumbai City FCMumbai would go on to do well that season, chasing playoff contention until the end of the season. But then what usually happens to a Jorge Costa team in the ISL happened – FC Goa and Sergio Lobera struck the telling blow. (Twitter/MumbaiCityFC)

At the halfway mark of the Indian Super League season, Mumbai City FC are five points clear at the top of the table with their previous game ending in a 1-0 victory over second-placed ATK Mohun Bagan. They are 10 points ahead of third-placed Hyderabad FC with 10 games played.

Just a year back, Mumbai was a flailing club. Not able to fill out an 8500-seater stadium in the heart of Andheri, a spot in the playoffs was always the goal but never a certainty. At the start of the 2019-20 season, then Mumbai City FC coach Jorge Costa’s first words to reporters before the start of the season, was how a lack of money to spend on transfers was going to hamper the club moving forwards. Regardless, Mumbai would go on to do well that season, chasing playoff contention until the end of the season. But then what usually happens to a Jorge Costa team in the ISL happened – FC Goa and Sergio Lobera struck the telling blow.

The new season though saw a new Mumbai team. Lobera and a bunch of his core Goa players jumped ship and suddenly City Football Group’s newest entrant in a long line of clubs looked well on track to go from perennial fodder for championship chasers to title favourites themselves. Central defender Mourtada Fall, midfielders Hugo Boumous and Ahmed Jahouh and strikers Bartholomew Ogbeche and Adam le Fondre joined Lobera in making Mumbai the team to beat. And until now, the only team to beat them has been NorthEast United FC.

On paper, the only team that can come close to the individual talent that Mumbai possesses is ATK Mohun Bagan. But for a team with a Spaniard leading the helm, their ways of play are anything but Iberian. An over-reliance on Roy Krishna’s individual brilliance has shown consequences in the past few games, despite their defence only giving up five goals in 10 games. Their hopes of matching Mumbai took a further blow when the Islanders beat them 1-0 on Monday and took a five-point lead with another 10 games to go.

Bengaluru’s collapse

While Mumbai’s fortunes have skyrocketed, no team’s results have surprised more than Bengaluru FC. Their last four games ended in losses to ATK Mohun Bagan, Jamshedpur FC, Mumbai City FC and SC East Bengal. Carles Cuadrat, the Spaniard that took over from Albert Roca and led Bengaluru to the ISL title in 2018-19, mutually parted ways with the club.

At the heart of Bengaluru’s losses is the inability to score. Two goals in the four games they lost was indicative that while Sunil Chhetri continues to be a vital cog of the team and their style of play, relying on him for a steady stream of goals, is not going to yield any dividends, since that has never been Chhetri’s forte.

Bright future

Just as Bengaluru struggle with their goals, East Bengal have just started to find theirs, in new Nigerian recruit Bright Enobakhare. Bright joined EB in the January transfer window to plug a very crucial gap for Robbie Fowler’s team. Having to play with Balwant Singh as their main goal scoring option, EB kept slipping down the table despite Anthony Pilkington and Jacques Maghoma trying their best to hold fort.

But Bright has come in and immediately scored two in three games, including a golazo against FC Goa that saw him start a run at midfield, dribble past four players, beat the goalkeeper and calmly slot the ball in. With the playoff system still in place and East Bengal now on an unbeaten run, they are within five points of a spot in the top four.

Surprise contenders

At the start of the season, Mumbai City FC, FC Goa, ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru would be the educated guess for the four playoff spots. But Bengaluru’s drop has seen Hyderabad FC take their spot.

After their coach Albert Roca was called up by Barcelona, Hyderabad managed to snag another Roca, Manuel Marquez Roca to be precise, to handle proceedings. The Spaniard has managed to keep his young team part of the pack chasing Mumbai City and ATK Mohun Bagan. With half of the season complete, Hyderabad FC have racked up more goals than all teams not named Mumbai City, have made the third most passes in the league as a team and have taken the second-most pops at goal among all in the ISL.

All of these impressive attributes gain further credence when one takes a look at how, or rather who, has helped Hyderabad achieve this position. Winger Liston Colaco and defender Ashish Rai, both Indian names, have not just been mere bystanders in their teams but have made sizeable contributions. Ashish Rai has made the third most interceptions in the league with 27, one of them directly leading to the second goal scored by Hyderabad in their win over NorthEast United. Colaco on the other hand has contributed two goals and two assists in nine games while taking 19 shots.

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