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ISL To ACL: ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City Lock Horns in Decider

Jaydeep Basu |
With an Asian Champions League spot up for grabs, ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC take on each other in a crucial Indian Super League (ISL) encounter on Sunday. For ATKMB, a draw will do. For Mumbai City nothing fewer than three points will work. In a meandering season, the closing show seems to be blockbuster night.
Mumbai City FC vs ATK Mohun Bagan in the ISL

Mumbai City FC beat ATK Mohun Bagan 1-0 when the two sides met in the Indian Super League (ISL) in January.

Mohun Bagan Athletic Club were considered a legendary institution long before the unfurling of the tricolor took place in Delhi in August 1947. That one single triumph against the East Yorkshire Regiment in the 1911 IFA Shield final made the green and maroon outfit a part of football folklore forever.

Yet, in reality, their success rate in the years after that triumph rarely matched the  legendary status accorded them. It took them six years after Independence to win their first major title outside Calcutta (now Kolkata) when they finally managed to lift the Durand Cup in 1953.

Sailen Manna, the long-standing skipper of Mohun Bagan in the 1950s, later said winning the Durand Cup was an unforgettable experience; not just because Mohun Bagan won it for the first time. The way President Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the chief guest for the final, received Manna, completely overwhelmed the Mohun Bagan captain.

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Manna said while handing over the trophy the President told him he had been an ardent Mohun Bagan fan since his university days in Calcutta. Manna was thrilled when the president said the heroics of 11 barefooted Indians against the British military side at the Calcutta Club ground would be etched in his memory forever.

Gone are those days, and naturally so. Over the years, Mohun Bagan have undergone a sea change in their approach, including the latest, a modification of their traditional name. Mohun Bagan AC are now ATK Mohun Bagan, neither barefooted, nor boasting an all-Indian eleven. In fact, to say the success of ATK Mohun Bagan largely depends on the form and ability of their foreign recruits will infuriate a few diehard fans but it is hardly an exaggeration.

The so-called “foreign domination” of Indian domestic football began in the 1990s and took firm hold post 2014. On Sunday night, once the national anthem is played and the referee blows the whistle to kick-off, both ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC would look up to their foreign footballers to earn a spot in the Asian Champions League (ACL).

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It is not hard to predict what the ATK MB strategy will be. Antonio Habas’s plan has always been clear. Keep a water-tight defence with Spanish recruit Tiri as the leader of the pack and continue teasing the rivals with quick-footed counter attacks. If the Australian David Williams can put the ball in the right places (as he has often done in the last two seasons) and Fijian striker Roy Krishna can get a clear view of goal, Habas doesn’t need a plan B. 

And why should he? These simple tactics have fetched him 40 points this season and with just one more required, he doesn’t need to stick his neck out of his safe haven. There was a time when the legendary Chima Okorie’s goals won Mohun Bagan their maiden NFL title. In later years, the mantle of winning matches for Mohun Bagan was taken over by the Brazilian Jose Barreto. With 14 goals and four assists in 18 matches, Roy Krishna has proved himself a more than able successor.

For Mumbai City, things of late have not been alright. After a brilliant start that saw them go on a 12-match unbeaten streak, Mumbai lost a series of points that included somewhat unexpected defeats against NorthEast United, Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC. Now three points behind ATK Mohun Bagan, Sergio Lobera’s boys are now left with no other option but to win. It will clinch them the ACL spot as they will end up with a clean sweep had-to-head record against ATK MB. But despite having quality foreign players, Mumbai will miss the man they paid a record transfer fee for the most.

Frenchman Hugo Boumous is the key man in the Mumbai set up, but will have no role to play in this season decider having been suspended till the end of the league phase. It is a huge blow as it would further blunt their already dwindling attacking game — the half a dozen goals they hammered against hapless Odisha FC in the previous match notwithstanding.

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Lobera will face a dilemma – how to set up a defence that conceded 15 goals in the last eight matches, against the Williams-Krishna onslaught (one where Marceilinho can join the show). Neither Harnan Santana, nor Mourtada Fall have managed to live up to their reputations in the last few weeks. Will he bring in Mehtab Singh? But will that move help the coach to plug the hole he is desperately looking for?

But then, Mumbai are not without some classy footballers. If foreigners CY Goddard and Ahmed Jahouh have the ability to turn the match around, local boys like Bipin Singh and Rowllin Borges are there to take the battle to the rival camp. To add to it, Mumbai’s disadvantage while going into the match could be their biggest trump card.

Mumbai City FC need to win. ATK Mohun Bagan would progress happily with a draw. But to play for one point will always be hugely confusing. During the 2001-2002 National Football League, high-scoring Churchill Brothers needed just a draw against Mohun Bagan to bag the title in the final encounter of the season. The green and maroon brigade clinched the deal with a solitary goal win in Churchill’s home match. Yusif Yakubu’s Churchill bombarded Mohun Bagan's goal from start to finish. The Kolkata side who conceded 19 goals in the season, scoring only 31, just managed to hold on despite five minutes of added-time ordered by the Malaysian referee. 

True, the ATK Mohun Bagan defence is perhaps the most organized in the current edition of the ISL. At the same time, there seems to have been a slight dip in Tiri’s game, while Sandesh Jhingan and Pritam Kotal have not displayed the consistency expected from national team regulars.

To use a cliché, it should be a mouth-watering clash on Sunday night. After all, a place in the ACL is up for grabs, the demand for which made the All India Football Federation (AIFF) turn Indian football upside down in 2019. The battle was taken to Kuala Lumpur where the stamp of approval was earned to make the I-League a second-grade tournament. 

Ironically, even after the ACL spot is finalized and the league champions are decided, four teams, including ATK Mohun Bagan, Mumbai City FC and NorthEast United FC, will proceed to play the knock-out stage. For whose benefit, only the organisers can explain.

Finally, some well-thought out scheduling has made things go down to the wire. While ATK Mohun Bagan-Mumbai City FC tie will decide the top spot, FC Goa and Hyderabad FC will battle it out on the same day to decide the fourth spot in the play-off. In the lower half of the table, nothing much will change. Odisha FC have finished at the bottom. But do they need to care too much? Not really. After all, nobody is going to be relegated here.

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