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ISL

ISL: End of a bittersweet season for Mumbai City FC

After the Durand Cup and AFC Champions League debacle, Mumbai City FC recovered from a hiccup to emerge as the ISL Cup Winners in the final.

ISL: End of a bittersweet season for Mumbai City FC
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Bipin Singh celebrating his goal against Mohun Bagan SG in the ISL final. ( FILE PHOTO: Mumbai City FC)

By

John Mathew

Published: 13 May 2024 7:13 AM GMT

Being India's sole representative in the AFC Champions League, the stakes for the season were always high for Mumbai City FC. Drawn alongside Al Hilal for the Champions League group stages meant the Islanders had a chance to play the big boys of Asia. Moreover, it was yet another chance for them to defend the ISL title โ€” a feat which no team have managed till now.

Mumbai's transfer window in preparation for the season was a roller coaster. Failure to retain Jahouh and Fall meant they had to rebuild part of their core. The Islanders responded to the call by snapping up the likes of Akash Mishra, Tiri, and Yoell van Nieff among others. With the continuity of their Indian stalwarts such as Bipin Singh and Lallianzuala Chhangte, Mumbai seemed set for yet another winning run.

In what is the curtain raiser for the Indian football season โ€” the Durand Cup, Mumbai won all of their group games, setting up a knock-out game with Mohun Bagan SG. In a game between two sides that would later prove to be the battle of the season; Bagan drew first blood, winning 3-1 and knocking out the Islanders.

The next time they took to the field, it was in Asia. Mumbai hosted Iranian side Nassaji Mazandaran at home to open their group stage proceedings. Mumbai lost the game 2-0 to the disappointment of the home fans.

Their action in the league would begin shortly after. After a win against Northeast United and a draw in Jamshedpur FC later, Asia came calling again. This time, it was away in Uzbekistan, at Navbahor's place. The Uzbek side dealt a heavy blow to Mumbai, inflicting a 3-0 loss, quelling any realistic chance for Mumbai to advance from the group. Mumbai returned to domestic action, beating Kerala 2-1 in a high-octane game at the Arena.

Then came the big one, the away clash against Al Hilal, who handed Mumbai their second-biggest loss ever, smashing the Indian side for six.

Followed by a win and a draw in the ISL, Mumbai's hunt in Asia resumed, but to no avail. Following the home loss against Al Hilal, head coach Des Buckingham was let go in search of older pastures, as he took over his boyhood club Oxford United. Mumbai were led by Anthony Fernandes in their final two games in the Champions League as they lost all six games in the group stage, scoring just once through Nasser El Khayati in the final game against Navbahor.

Mumbai's season was nagged by turbulence always. Injuries, suspensions and departures broke down the initially rebuilt squad. Greg Stewart left, Noguera and Pereyra Diaz were injured for a while, Rostyn Griffiths was let go and finally, Des left as well. It seemed like Mumbai needed a rebuild, and they needed it mid-season; if they were to continue to compete.

Hence, several new faces came in. Iker Guarrotxena, Thaer Krouma, and Jakub Vojtus all were bought in. Although, the key to the cog proved to be the man on the sidelines. A certain Petr Kratky.

Kratky's reign at Mumbai began with a couple of goalless draws against FC Goa and East Bengal. Mumbai's first league loss came away at Kerala on Christmas Eve. They'd then bounce back with a 3-0 win against Chennaiyin FC after which the squad left for the Super Cup. The Super Cup was where the team gained a Kratky identity. His trust in his Indian talent began to pay off as Mumbai won three matches on the trot and made it to the semifinals, where they were knocked out by Odisha FC. But a blueprint had been established.

Following the 13th match-day, Mumbai were 4th and 5 points short of the top. Following a 2-3 home loss against Jamshedpur, Mumbai went on a nine-game unbeaten streak, racking up 25 out of a possible 27 points, leaving them on top by a point ahead of the final match-day.

A draw against title rivals Mohun Bagan was all that was required for Mumbai. But football had other ideas; when two stories of elite resurgence collided, it went with Mohun Bagan on the day. A 2-1 win at the Salt Lake sealed the league title for the Mariners, leaving Kratky and his men in despair, but with a spark that was not dead yet.

The Cup was Mumbai's final chance at silverware this season. In a season marred with halts and inadequacies, Mumbai had braved through it all but had nothing to show. Saying they were motivated is an understatement. Mumbai knew this had to be theirs. Kratky made sure they knew.

And it showed. Away at Goa for the first leg, Mumbai trailed 0-2 till the 90th minute; but miraculously won the game 3-2. 3 goals in 6 minutes, all scored by Indians. Kratky's trust in his youngsters was beginning to pay off at the best possible time. Carrying the lead home, Mumbai cleaned up the tie with yet another classy 2-0 win to secure another date with Mohun Bagan SG, again with a title on the line.

It was a re-enactment of the shield decider. Mumbai dominated proceedings but conceded against the run-of-play as Bagan seemed on course for a domestic treble. But when a side of character decide they want something, coupled with talent and hard work - usually they get that, and Mumbai did.

Scoring 3 goals in reply, Mumbai won the Cup at Bagan's home. While they have failed to retain their title and their ticket to Asia; they can hold their head high. For all their injuries, departures and set-backs, they have a title to show. Even more importantly, their project is blooming with potential yet again. With a coach of Petr's charm and instinct to trust in the country's own youth running at the helm; Mumbai could do something special in the upcoming seasons.

Best moment of the season

When you win a title, it is undoubtedly the best moment. But if entertainment quotient is the criteria, Mumbai's best moment of the season has to be the insane 3-2 comeback win over Goa. For a game that all thought was dead, Mumbai not only revived the game, they resurrected it. Maybe that was the moment destiny destined them to win the cup.

Player of the season

It's not often you have an Indian player commanding a team's forward line, except if you are Lallianzuala Chhangte. The 26-year-old flashy winger is showing his career-best performances with his true prime even yet to arrive. With 15 goals and assists this season, Chhangte led Mumbai's line through its tough phases. Injuries ravaged the attacking line around him but he proved capable. Mumbai's asset on the wings could very likely be India's next hero.

Emerging player of the season

Vikram Partap Singh is not a new name to Indian football circles, but this was truly his break-out year. Especially following the Kratky take-over, VPS really stepped up. Second behind Chhangte in the list for goals + assists with 11, Vikram's exploits were crucial in Mumbai's revival. Valpuia, Ayush Chhikara and Gurkirat Singh all deserve their due praise as well.

Season rating

For the standard that Mumbai have set for themselves, it has not been a great season. The cup is indeed a great feat but it is not the one that's top on the wish list. Asian campaign was a disappointment as well. Albeit, their revival in the league was indeed a huge positive, especially all the while braving through all the problems that stood in the way; Mumbai's season can be rated as a 7/10.

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