Defending the Dominance | Know Your Opponent ft. Mumbai City FC

Defending the Dominance

"Back then, the Raaj Kumar-Rajesh Kumar film Maryada was a big hit. Some rival supporters started chanting Raaj Kumar's name at the half-time that made Dilip Saab very annoyed. He stood up from the stage and told their supporters, 'you should have called Raaj Kumar then, why did you invite me?'. He became so annoyed but the situation was brought under control. He was a big sports lover and followed all the Mumbai and Goan clubs and would be present whenever Mohammedan Sporting played in Kolkata or in Mumbai."

These were the words of Victor Amalraj, former captain of Mohammedan Sporting Club on an anecdote revolving legendary Bollywood actor Dilip Kumar during the 1980 Rovers Cup final between East Bengal and Mohammedan. He is credited with pioneering the art of method acting and holds the record for most Filmfare award wins in Best Actor category along with Shah Rukh Khan. Mohammad Yusuf Khan, who adopted the stage name of Dilip Kumar out of fear of his unapproving father, was an avid football lover. He rooted for Mohammedan and was a familiar face during their games in Cooperage in Mumbai, a city which has a rich history with football.

The Bombay Football Association was founded in 1902 and it started the Harwood League with 7 clubs. 12 years before that, the Rovers Cup was played by some British enthusiasts in Bombay, but only after the foundation of the BFA did the Rovers become well organised. In 1911, these two committees amalgamated to form the Western India Football Association (WIFA). It was in 1914, in the second division of the Harwood League that the first two Indian clubs, Bengal United and Instituto Luso, Indian. There was a pause in footballing activities till 1921 since the Cooperage ground, the hub of all Bombay football was being utilised by the British forces during WW1.

Rovers Cup (Collected from

In 1923, Mohun Bagan, who had famously won the I.F.A shield back in 1911, became the first major Indian club to be invited to the Rovers Cup. They dominated over all teams, only to be defeated 4-1 at the final to Durham Light Infantry. More and more Indian clubs started to participate and the significance of the Rovers Cup grew. It was only in 1937 that an Indian club was finally able to conquer the coveted trophy, and that were the Bangalore Muslims. They happened to do win the Cup the following year too. 1940 was significant as both the finalists were Indian clubs where Mohammedan won 1-0 over Bangalore Muslims.

In 1941 and ’42, for the first time a local Bombay side, the Y.M.C.A, were able to champion the top division of the Harwood League. In the years ’50-’54, the mighty Hyderabad Police under Syed Abdul Rahim 5-peated the Rovers Cup, a record which could be never broken again till the dissolution of the Cup in 2001. The Bombay football team (renamed Maharashtra football team in ’62) has won the National Championship, i.e. the Santosh Trophy four times in ’55, ’64. ’91 and ’00. Its best performances in the 21st century have been runners up finishes in ’06 and ’16.

I. Go Big Or Go Home

“I think I’m driven about the sport I’m driven about the development of football in this country and I think I am I have a business of my own I’m an actor I own money from there so this is more of a passion project for me than a business project for me so I hope that you know it grows in the country and if even if it doesn’t you know I’ll still continue supporting the sport in the country and I hope that one day football becomes as famous as you know football is in Brazil Argentina or any other international market,” Ranbir Kapoor, MCFC owner before ISL 2014.

Within the first few games and eventually by the end of the first ISL season, it was pretty well understood to Ranbir and the other managers and co owners that a lot more reflection, evaluation and investment would be required to make that passion project a successful one. They lost 3 of their first 4 games, and even though they recovered from that early setback with a 5 game lossless streak involving wins over Kerala Blasters and Delhi Dynamos, they managed to find the back of the net only 4 times in their last 8 games which led them to a measly second to bottom place finish. This club arguably had the most popular bunch of players in their roster going into the first ever ISL and were strong contenders for the title itself, but it seemed that those big names, just like all other teams, had just came for the big money and displayed little to no interest and intention to contribute throughout the season.

MCFC 2014 season lineup (Courtesy: ISL media)

Nicolas Anelka, Frederick Ljungberg, and the foreign CB pairing of Manuel Friedrich and Pavel Cmovswere sub par to say the least. Subrata Pal at the goal and midfielder Jan Stohanzl were some of the best performers. Now the marquees and other popular European elites not performing was not a surprise but probably an expectation from all clubs because that approach was done only to drive in the eyeballs, which worked in the first two seasons. What the clubs didn’t expect was probably how the marquee’s presence was prioritised as the sole reason for the interest of a significant portion of their fambases, and after 2015, ISL experience sharp reductions in the viewership and attendances. Not converting that European player fanbase to the Indian club fanbase is where ISL has had a major failure.

Back to the topic of Mumbai City FC and their second season in the ISL, who yet again went all attack and no defense. Nicolas Anelka’s lack of coaching experience was evident as the team stood still as the opposition toyed with their defense. They ended up with the worst goal difference with 26 goals conceded in 14 games. They had signed Sunil Chettri for 1 cr, who did impress throughout the season and even had a hat trick to his name. Other big names included Sony Norde who had helped win Mohun Bagan the I League the season prior.

Now that the management could finally pin point their instability at the back and the lack of coaching leadership to be the primary faults, they approached the market with a more balanced approach with respected the defense. They brought in Lucian Goian who happened to be an instant hit and rock at the back, and add to that a marquee player who finally worked wonders, going by the name of a certain Diego Forlan, it was a comfortable ride to the league premiership, albeit such a title/trophy not existing in the ISL back then, under the disciplined guidance of Costa Rican manager Alexandre Guimaraes. They eventually bowed down to eventual title winners ATK, partly owing to Forlan’s suspension in the second leg, and Sunil Chetri failing to capitalise his chances.

Diego Forlan celebrates after scoring in ISL 2016. (Courtesy: ISL media)

They were yet again set to get the playoffs the next season after being second in the last at the end of 2017, but disappointments and chance wastage up top with occasional defensive coordination errors lead them to agonising defeats in all the wrong times as they finished 7th. After an infuriating season with missed potentials the Mumbai fanbase got respite through another playoff qualification, now under Jorge Costa, an important player in Jose Mourinho’s UCL conquest with Porto. The grit, never-say-die and fear no one attitude and the ability to work wonders with limited options was reminiscent of Mourinho’s magic and philosophy, which helped the team from Mumbai 9 wins and 3 draws in total. The ISL player draft was not something Mumbai came out as solid as their previous seasons, and even though they couldn’t clear the semis yet again they should be thankful they didn’t finish worse on the table.

II. Champion Football Group

The disappointment of Mumbai on nearly missing out on another playoffs in the 19/20 season was soothed a bit after UAE Government backed City Football Group acquired 65% stake in the club. Known for spending heavily and having a robust circulating system of technically adept managers, CFG’s selection of Mumbai City FC (the already favourable name of the club probably playing an important factor) came as a huge blessing and took the club with reasonable success until now to an entirely new level, and 5he silverwares finally started flowing in.

Sergio Lobera with the ISL shield (Courtesy: MCFC media)

Hugo Boumous, Batholomew Ogbeche, Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh, Adam Le Fondre, Cy Goddard, Hernan Santana. Imagine assembling all these names in a single transfer window. Don’t have to because that’s what one of the, if not the biggest, sports investors in the world brings to the table. Interestingly they also bet on a few I League and  prospects like PurbaLachenpa from Real Kashmir, Vikram Pratap Singh from Indian Arrows, Mehtab Singh and Naorem Tondonba Singh from East Bengal, Amey Ranawade from Bengaluru United and Chanso Horam from NEROCA. The first three names are starters even to this date while Ranawade is shining up and down the right flank for Odisha. With such an impressive roster, not winning tuned a become hard for MCFC as Loberatook the West Block Brigade’s celebration to a melodious crescendo, top of the Indian Super League at season end, and then completing the only ever Premiership and Championship double of the ISL. On both occasions they had to win over Mohun Bagan, once on final matchday, which led to the clubs finishing with same points but with a GD difference of 4, and then the ISL final itself.
After winning 5 out of their first 6 games, the Mumbai faithful who were probably already starting to celebrate another title definitely didn’t except that the shining Mumbai Express would derail all of a sudden. A 7 game winless streak, followed by two crucial losses to Kerala Blasters and Hyderabad FC in their last 2 games would throw them out the playoff berths. It wasn’t necessarily a bad season, but definitely a disaster given the context of Mumbai’s investments, they being the defending champions and according expectations, which probably became a mental barrier for many players. In matches where the conceded first, they could only managed to convert two of them to draws while going on to lose the rest 7. Sloppiness, excessive card collection leading to suspensions of important players at crucial matches, and Lobera being promoted through the multi leveled club hierarchy structure at CFG to Chinese club Sichuan Jiuniu, thus Des Buckingham, who till then was the assistant at Melbourne City, another CFG club, got his first ever experience of coaching a top tier professional club.

MCFC after winning 22/23 shield (Courtesy: @DesBuckingham via X)

Thus happened 22/23,

With which came trophy number three,

There was nearly an invincible spree,

And Buckingham wrote his name in golden ink into Mumbai City FC’s history.

“Last year, I only arrived three weeks before the season started. My staff arrived after me. We still had players arriving after me. So, in terms of preparation or having the time to work with players, it was very difficult. When I talk about trying to play this style of football or, get players to understand it and work towards it, sometimes that does take time... [This season] there’s been a consistency of them working together and time spent together on the training pitch,” Des Buckingham, former MCFC coach to ESPN after winning the 22/23 shield.


Most points in the league stage of a single season (46). First team to win the ISL Shield twice (2020-21 and 2022-23). Most goals scored by a team in a single season (54). Longest consecutive winning streak (11 games). Longest unbeaten streak (18 games). Longest goal scoring streak (28). Most goals by Indian players for a club (25). Most away wins for a team in a season (8). Consecutive away win record (8 straight away wins). Most goals scored by a team in away games in a season (30). First team to top the league table thrice at the end of the season.Most wins in a season league stage (14).Best goal difference in the league stage (+33). This is what giving Des time to settle, bringing in proven stars like Pereira Diaz, Noguera and Greg Stuart and a Rostyn Griffiths does to a team. Also by this time, Des was also crucial into grooming Apuia, Vikram Pratap Singh and Mehtab Singh into who they are today, while also allowing Chhangte to travel into the goal scoring zones which eventually got him the Golden ball of the ISL.

III. A Successful Graduate, A New Prospect

When one gets a call from home, probably nothing brings a superior sense of comfort, reassurance and hope, and that’s probably what made Des Buckingham move back to his boyhood club Oxford United in the English third division. The starry blue boy called Des with a persona suiting the style of the City of Dreams had now left the town becoming a man achieving his own dream of making it into the mix of the higher tiered English sides. The bittersweet emotions outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, that final goodbye meet with few fans did bring a smile, if not a tear, to many Indian football enthusiasts. Thus the pre fixed cycle of managerial promotions within CFG put another Melbourne City Assistant at the helm of coaching the lads of Bombay.

Mumbai City FC, quite expectedly, if not obviously, had another proper start to the season. When Des left, they had won 4 and drew 2 games. The new guy, Czech-Australian Petr Kratky, has overseen two goalless draws against Goa and East Bengal. Buckingham started the season with his typical 4-2-3-1 with Akash Mishra, Mehtab Singh, Rostyn Griffiths/Tiri and Rahul Bheke comprising the back line, followed by a not-so-strict double pivot of Apuia and Yoell Van Nieff, the replacement for Ahmed Jahouh who was called to Odisha after Sergio Lobera joined the East Indian side, any two between Chhangte, Vipin and Vikram in the wings, Greg Stewart at a free creative forward role and Jorge Pereira Díaz being the target no. 9. After Mumbai’s second ever ACL campaign where they couldn’t earn a single point, much worse than their first one where the won twice against Iraqi Air Force Club and drawing once against UAE based Al Jazira they finish second in their group from which only the table topper would progress, Buckingham now had to accommodate the extra foreigners brought for the ACL into his ISL squad, most difficult to accommodate among them being Abdenassr El Khayati.

Akash Mishra has shifted much forward in the left wing following their formational transition.

Now the reason for that is Yoell Van Nieff, a defensive midfielder can slot in easily like a supporter to Apuia, Tiri can alternate with Rostyn, but Khayati’s most preferred role is something which clashes considerably with Greg Stewart, thus in the two games he started, against Bengaluru and Goa, he was played as a slightly leftward biased support striker. The idea was that Pereira Diaz’s run would create the space for a cut back from Greg or a winger which would be finished by Khayati, which is exactly how Mumbai’s solarity open play goal shot from inside the box materialised. Otherwise, there were two penalties (one handball) and a long range screamer from Akash Mishra in that game. Not that penalties are less worthy than open play goals because the referee doesn’t gift you a penalty because you complimented his dressing sense, but it is earned when a goal scoring chance is denied illegally. But again when Mumbai didn’t get those penalties, as in the case of East Bengal and Goa, open play chance creation became a bit difficult.
By now, Akash Mishra can be easily called a Left winger, especially in the EB game when no natural winger was fielded and Jayesh Rane had a more interior role, as Mumbai’s backline now is a three man affair, guarded by Vinit Rai or Van Nieff and Apuia, with Mishra also dropping when he has the time and stamina. Against East Bengal, a notable shift from MCFC’s general chance creation approach was notice as most threats were being created from long ball and crosses. It’s not that the percentage of long balls had a remarkable increase, but the type of attack involving short passes in the centre of the park, drawing opposition players out of position then launching one towards the wings was lot more common than the Buckingham era.

MCFC's new formation in the match vs Goa. (Courtesy: ISL on JioCinema)

This new 3-4-2-1 approach seemed to work well against Bengaluru who themselves were struggling with their philosophical identity, which seems to be changing now under new head coach Gerard Zaragoza, but against a proper 4 man defense with 2 pivots, the lack of a proper winger was evident. Mishra, Greg and Jayesh were taking turns but this is something which will take some more time to implement. It’s a good time to look back to what Buckingham said about his first season (in the quote a bit above) after winning the shield. It’s quite literally a change as like-for-like as it gets. Kratky is managing a top tier side after 7 years in a developmental role, and he will require himself0 to build himself as a leader and a mentor and fully understand the nuances of being a manager, for which he will always have the guidance of Buckingham to his side. There will be more draws and defeats, they might not challenge for the shield and maybe even as the worst case scenario finish like how Des did in his first season, but it’s a club which knows it’s identity, and things will fit into place sooner than later. 

Mohun Bagan’s Approach:

Hugo Boumous is back after a one game holiday with his hamstring. Also Thapa braved his elbow pain while Deepak Tangri made his first ISL start of the season after a serious long injury, just like our blocker had never left. He somehow even managed to position in a manner which would put the rebound from Michu’s save into the coal thus hpijng level the game after a Phalguni Singh stunner. After that it was only MB toying with anyone and everyone NorthEast as the game which easily could have finished 6-1 ended up being a 3-1 win for the Mariners, with the other goals coming from Cummings tap in from a perfectly placed Sadiku head down and then an acute curler from Mr. Dependable el Captain Subhasish da.
But now is one of the toughest games and the casualness in front of goal will be punished. Now MCFC have got ample time to to find their winning combination. 2 draws is equivalent to 2 losses for clubs like Mumbai and Bagan, so this, just like every season, will be one of the most exciting and tightly contested matches. The first time Ferrando fielded his 3-5-2, it was in the 3-1 Durand victory over MCFC. Thus the players are already aware of how Juan uses this system. Over time it has got a few tweaks, but if Mumbai don’t field a proper winger it will be wiser to put Manvir Singh on the wing back. Sahal is still unavailable but it’s lot better than the injuries last game. As we move towards the end of the first half of the season, MBSG face the big 3 till now, viz. MCFC, FCG and KBFC in that order. Positive results in these will prove crucial in the title decider.

Mohun Bagan's expected Lineup :

Mumbai City FC's expected Lineup :

Mumbai's football saga, steeped in decades of fervor, is a narrative marked by passion, diversity, and tenacity. Mumbai City FC, a contemporary force, epitomizes the city's enduring love for the sport. As the city rejoices in its footballing legacy, Mumbai City FC stands as a dynamic blend of tradition and modernity, carving out its distinctive chapter in Mumbai's illustrious football history.

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