Custodian Arindam Bhattacharya was adjudged the Man of the Match when Antonio Habas’ ATK emerged the Indian Super League (ISL) champions last season. Exactly a year later, he turned out to be the villain.
City Football Group-backed Mumbai City FC made a clean sweep of 2020-21 ISL titles at Goa’s Nehru Stadium on Saturday. Twice before in the season they had tamed ATK Mohun Bagan to win the league title. Mumbai did it for the third time with a 2-1 victory in the cup final, and deservingly so, but Arindam’s shocking underperformance under the ATK Mohun Bagan bar certainly went a long way to make it possible.
Football is a great leveler, they often say. Arindam learned it the hard way. It was 11 years ago at Dhaka when the lanky goalkeeper shot into fame with a couple of breathtaking saves in the SAAF Cup final. India fielded an under-23 squad and yet won the title because of Arindam’s brilliance. Against Mumbai, he looked a pale shadow of his former self.
Former India goalkeeper and skipper Bhaskar Ganguly would always say: “When to come out of the line is a kind of judgment that can make or break a goalkeeper. That is one decision he has to take on his own. No one is going to teach you that. If you fail, your career could be over in a matter of seconds.” Looking at Arindam one realized how true Ganguly was.
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Arindam was chiefly responsible for ATK Mohun Bagan conceding both the goals after taking the lead through a David Williams strike in the 17th minute. He gave it away on a platter when Mumbai equalized in the 29th minute off an own goal by Tiri. The defender never realized his custodian would charge out of his line without bothering to give him a “call”. The ball bounced into the net rather lazily.
The ATK Mohun Bagan goal fell again in the 90th minute; this time again the over-eagerness of Arindam to rush out cost his team dear with no time left. All Bipin Singh had to do was to slam the ball into an open net. Once the match was over, Arindam covered his face with his jersey when the camera was panned on him. His action was understandable. He knew how much he let down his team.
But again, was it Arindam alone responsible for his team losing a trophy for the second time in a span of two weeks? Perhaps not. Much was said about ATK Mohun Bagan’s lethal striking line throughout the meet. But for the third time in the season, they failed to truly break open Sergio Lobera’s defence. Habas has been labelled a defensive coach, Lobera the exact opposite. In the end, it looked different. Lobera was regularly criticized for his porous defence, but he had the last laugh. Roy Krishna-David Williams combination could not dent his rearguard for the third time in the season.
More credit to Mumbai because they lost dependable Amey Ranawade in defence a minute before the half time. He suffered a concussion while battling for the ball with Subhasis Bose. It was an injury that left everyone on the pitch worrying. There were tears in the eyes of some of his teammates, Vignesh could be spotted praying with folded hands. Even the faces of Krishna and Tiri turned grim. Amey was put on the ambulance and taken to hospital.
So worried were Mumbai footballers that Bartholomew Ogbeche admitted after the match that at the breather they hardly talked about the strategy for the next 45 minutes. “We are humans. We hoped Amey would be alright,” said the striker, who hit the pitch in the 71st minute.
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Mumbai have won the League shield and now the cup. No doubt they were the most balanced side in the competition -- they had some brilliant footballers, but followed the rule of football strictly -- it’s a team game after all. In the final, Hugo Boumous and Ahmed Jahouh were not exactly at their best, but it didn’t hit Mumbai too hard.
The only time Mumbai City FC looked a bit rattled was when Williams struck a smart goal taking advantage of a defensive mistake. But once they were lucky to bag the equalizer, Mumbai slowly took hold of the midfield and dictated terms. Had not Boumous missed an easy opportunity, it could have been over long before.
That in the end Lobera refused to pick a particular footballer for some extra praise probably explained his style of functioning. When asked about young Bipin Singh being the only player to score a hat-trick this season and also the match-winner, he said: “Development of Indian players is the key for winning trophies. Not Bipin alone, I am proud of all Indian boys.” He held his ground even at his proudest hour.
At the start, ATK Mohun Bagan looked determined to end their losing streak against Mumbai. They made some spirited runs through the rival defence and picked up the lead. But Arindam’s first blunder had a telling effect on their confidence. It is a mystery why they suddenly lost control of the midfield that was very much under their command at the start.
It was definitely good to see an Indian footballer, Bipin Singh, scoring the winner. The Indian players on the field did their job well, but the command of the outing was in the hands of more talented foreigners. Bipin being among goals should be a huge relief for national coach Igor Stimac. He has been looking for a potential goal scorer rather desperately.
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Stimac has even slammed ISL coaches for not providing enough chances to Indians upfront. Lobera, at least, can’t be blamed. He did his best though mostly putting the local boys in the wings. Bipin had his chances and he grabbed them with both hands. It is now up to him to show what he is capable of at the next level.
Mumbai City FC have also earned a berth in the AFC Cup, which they have to surrender since they would be going to Asian Champions League (ACL) next season. The spot would go to ATK Mohun Bagan. With their current strength and form, it would be best for Habas’ boys to begin their continental ambitions through AFC Cup only.
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