The Parting Shot | Mohun Bagan vs Mumbai City FC Match Preview

The Parting Shot | Mohun Bagan vs Mumbai City FC Match Preview

“Shubho Nababarsha”

Manuel Perez Cascallana, assistant coach taking the helm of the coaching affairs due to the illness of Antonio Lopez Habas, began the pre-match conference with greeting all present, in fluent Bengali, wishing all a prosperous New Year of the Bengali calender. So did Joni Kauko, who sat alongside him.

It won’t be wrong to say that the Mohun Bagan faithful have had their share of heart-shattering end season close calls in recent years. After the iconic I-League win at the Kanteerava in 2015, Bengaluru themselves won the then top division with only a 2 point gap over Bagan.

Bagan were 3 points clear when 5 games were remaining but they only got 5 points from their last 5 games, while Bengaluru managed 10. A season after, Aizawl pulled off a Leicester City finishing their campaign top of the table with 37 points. Mohun Bagan were 1 point below.

A season after Punjab FC wrote their own miracle story. Mohun Bagan lagged 4 points behind the Minervans, settling with a third place finish. 2018-19 was an embarrassment with a 5th place finish, 14 points off Premiers Chennai City FC.

A season later, the jinx was broken. Sankar Roy, Ashutosh Mehta, Francisco Morante, Daniel Cyrus, Dhanachandra Singh, Shiekh Sahil, Francisco Gonzalez, VP Suhair, Joseba Beitia, Nongdomba Singh, Baba Diawara, Komron Tursunov, Debjit Majumder, Gurjinder Kumar, Lalramchullova, Britto P.M., Shilton D’Silva, Subha Ghosh, Kiyan Nassiri, Sheikh Faiaz, Salva Chamorro, Alexander Romario Jesuraj and Gurjinder Kumar played a combined 15787 minutes, which is around 263 hours or 11 days of football, under the guidance of the legendary Kibu Vicuna, to make Mohun Bagan the Champions of India after 5 years.

Mohun Bagan as 2019/20 I League Champions (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

A lot has happened since. Questions on the sheer identity of the club. While the on field performance continued to be exceptional, it was the same reason which led to widespread protests due to an unpleasant name change from the interests of the majority investor, now in the new to division of Indian football, the Indian Super League.

The I League jinx now became the ISL jinx. The 20/21 Shield was lost by a final matchday loss to Mumbai City FC. Bagan advanced to the finals, only to lose to Mumbai again through horrible individual mistakes, even after taking the lead. The potential double ended up to nothing.

A similar story, a year later. Antonio Lopez Habas resigned after six games, came in Juan Ferrando who established the then joint highest unbeaten record with the team. However, the first defeat for Ferrando came when it mattered the most. A 2-0 win over Jamshedpur would have given them the Shield. The match ended in a 1-0 loss. A 3-1 humbling to Hyderabad in the first semifinal leg could not be compensated for in the playoffs.

Bagan did not even come close to the Premier position last season. Mumbai broke multiple records to finish with 46 points, Hyderabad on 42, third placed Bagan with 34. However, ISL gives you a second chance. Rather, this second chance is what mattered, until last season, atleast on financial terms. The AFC Champions League spot still goes to the Shield winners.

Bagan as ISL Champions 22/23 (Courtesy: ISL Media)

Bagan won their first ever ISL. It was not necessarily a season where they dominated, but it was one of incredible defensive grit which helped them through the eliminators. However, the Shield Winners are going to be the official champions this season onwards.

There is no reputable backup of sorts this time around, atleast with the standards of the National Club of India. With last season’s ISL win, the dreaded three letters were retreated, a move which was supported by nearly all Mariners.

This season has been quite the ride. An embarrassing exit in the AFC Cup, marred by a refereeing scandal without which it a group stage exit could have been avoided. But this is football. It can get as ugly as it can be beautiful. The ISL was now the saving grace.

An injury crisis and fixture congestion of 3 games in a week against some of the best opponents led to three consecutive defeats for the first time since 2003/04, two decades back. Naturally, all alarms went glaring in the management. Juan Ferrando was let away. Came back Habas.

It is with the hope of this beauty, this hope, this standard, this drive to survive, this identity of what it means to be a part of Mohun Bagan, has now taken this bunch to the point where a victory on final day will finally bring the league shield to the green and maroon part of the Maidan. And the match, against formidable foes from the west coast. Mumbai City FC.

Mumbai haven’t had it easy this time around. With even their weakest team on paper since the UAE state ownership, owning to a multitude of injuries and unexpected exits, from players to even their coach, it is quite an incredible feat to have completed all but one match at the top of the table, two points of second placed Bagan.

Mumbai’s Indian contingent stepped up in times of trouble. They are likely to finish this ISL with more goals being scored by Indians than foreigners. It is quite a rare feat in the current structure of Indian football where the creative and finishing roles are reserved for the star imports.

Forwards Lalrinzuala Chhangte, Vikram Pratap Singh and Bipin Singh, midfielders Jayesh Rane, Apuia and Vinit Rai, defenders Bheke, Valpuia, Mehtab and Mishra and Goalkeeper Lachenpa have been exceptional.

Pairing with Alberto Noguera, Iker Guarrotxena, former Bagan player Tiri, Thaer Krouma, Jakub Vojtus, Pereyra Diaz, Yoell Van Nieff and Greg Stewart in the foreign department across various parts of the season, the results continued to flow despite the multitude of forced changes. Stewart went to Scotland, came in Noguera. Pereyra got a long injury, came in Iker. Iker got a season ending injury, came in Jakub. 

In no terms it can be said that Mumbai had an easy route to this position. All praise goes to replacement head coach Petr Kratky who had no prior role as a primary leader of a team, yet his bold trust on young Indians in crucial roles is what sustained their success. They too have had a Asian outing to forget, with all matches lost in the Asian Champions League group stage. They too view this opportunity to salvage something out of this season.

A draw won’t do it for Bagan. Only a win will. It all boils down to whether Sadiku and Cummings will be able to finish their chances, whether Petratos will produce a wonder out of nowhere, where Manvir and Liston will dribble through the backs, whether they will make their runs on time, whether Tangri will keep the late runner and silky dribbler in check, whether Thapa will make his accurate distributions, whether Joni Kauko will be the engine of the team, whether Anwar, Ashish, Yuste and Subhashish will be able to keep their mutual coordination and individual focus throughout the ninety, whether Vishal Kaith will be able to replicate his miracle saves.

That is all it depends on. 50000 people on the stands. Screaming at the top of their voices. 44 feet on the ground from minute zero. Only half of those will be jumping in joy at the final whistle. The other half, crumbled in despair. 7.30 pm. The 15th of April. 2024. The Arabian Sea vs. The Bay of Bengal. The Glistening Skyscrapers of the West Coast vs. The Sturdy Foundations of Century Old Bungalows of the East. A Battle like no other. An Encounter to bring forward the New Champions of India. Joy Mohun Bagan.

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