Mumbai City befriend adversity to silence Mohun Bagan’s Salt Lake and win the ISL

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Mumbai City stared adversity in the face at the most imposing arena in Indian football, and walked out champions. Of course they did. After all, it’s what they’d been doing all season.

On Saturday, at a packed Salt Lake, they dominated the first 42 minutes of the ISL final only to see Mohun Bagan do what Mohun Bagan do (take the lead against the run of play). A lesser team would have crumbled. Just a few weeks back, they’d done just that, caving under the pressure and the noise as they lost the League shield to Bagan. But this City team is made of different mettle. They learn from their setbacks, and they keep fighting.

“You always have to take the positives from the negative moments,” a jubilant head coach Petr Kratky said after masterminding his side to a dominant performance against the league shield winners.

In the first half of the game, Mumbai City dominated possession, their high press suffocating the hosts. But a Dimi Petratos shot was spilt, and Jason Cummings tapped in the opener. Now, it was time again to show character. And this where their ability to “take the positives from the negative moments” came into full focus.

“There were obstacles in front of us throughout the season,” Kratky said. “It’s not easy, you don’t get these opportunities all the time every year.”

Incidentally, Kratky had this opportunity last year in the A-League grand final, as Melbourne City assistant coach. His team ended up losing 6-1, with Cummings scoring a hat-trick in that game. When the Australian striker opened the scoring tonight, Kratky might have been forgiven for reopening those scars.

“I didn’t know I would get this chance [at Mumbai City] back then, but I told myself, if I get a chance to coach in a final, I wouldn’t let that happen [again],” Kratky said.

As promised, his team didn’t. They’d been fighting all season — losing their previous coach Des Buckingham unexpectedly in November, losing some influential players in January and more through a number of suspensions and injuries — so they fought once again.

Even a goal down, even with the Salt Lake at full volume, they just kept playing their football, kept putting Bagan on the backfoot. The goals they scored may not have been the most memorable in isolation, but they were just reward for a performance that merited the victory.

“We were better than them, even in the first half. We just had to keep going, and eventually we got our rewards,” Kratky said.

The faith in the philosophy pays off handsomely

Kratky was effusive in his praise for Buckingham as well. The Czech said his job was made easier when he came into the club by the structure and philosophy that Buckingham had already put in place. The players themselves didn’t have to change much, and heading into the final, they’d seen Kratky’s methods prove that they could come back from difficult situations. Take for example the six minutes of chaos in Goa, where they turned a 0-2 loss to a 3-2 win, a performance the coach called the catalyst for their cup win: because it gave them confidence after the low of losing the Shield in Kolkata against Bagan on the last day of the league.

Captain Rahul Bheke said that philosophy was why, even on the big night, they could cope with losing key players to injuries in moments when the game hung in the balance. Jorge Pereyra Diaz, the scorer of the equaliser had cramped up, Alberto Noguera injured himself while attempting a dribble, and Jayesh Rane just ran out of steam. This on top of missing the suspended Yoell van Nieff in their midfield on the night.

“Everyone had belief at half-time. We knew we just had to continue the way we played in the first half, and we would get the goals,” Bheke said.

But these were big blows — Diaz and Rane were the instigators of the high press that suffocated Bagan. Noguera had picked out Diaz with a ball over the top for their equaliser. To lose all three to uncontrollable circumstances might have stopped most teams in their tracks.

Not City. Their three replacements – Bipin Singh, Jakub Vojtus and Vinit Rai – put in influential performances as they held Bagan at arm’s length and reduced them to just one chance in the dying minutes… while also scoring twice between them.

The tactical switches those injuries necessitated meant Mumbai City had to deal themselves an extra blow by moving Lallianzuala Chhangte away from his best position in the right wing, moving into midfield to allow Bipin to take his place. It may have looked a perilous move, but for those on the pitch, there was never any doubt at any point in the game.

“I wouldn’t say we were nervous,” Bheke said. “These Indian players have shown before, like in the semifinal against Goa, where they scored three goals in six minutes to win that game.”

A group that doesn’t know when it is beaten. A coach who has the ability to make a team of excellent individuals still somehow greater than the sum of its parts. A philosophy that has never really changed for the last three years, even if the man at the helm has. It’s a heady concoction for Mumbai City. It is one that ensures adversity is their friend. It is one that ensures that the rare bad days are put behind them easily. One came three weeks ago, but that is firmly behind them, and now they’re taking the big trophy back home to Mumbai.

A crowd that was supposed to be their worst enemy had largely emptied by the time the final whistle blew and the Mumbai City players celebrated. The most consistent team in the land was vanquished in their own turf on the big night. The silence that engulfed the Salt Lake at the full-time whistle was, in itself, a victory for a club which in 2023-24, which thrived in trying circumstances.

They won’t stop here though. The planning for next season began when Kratky arrived in India, he said. If that plan makes this side face less adversity than they have overcome this season, then there’s a sensible prediction to be made on Mumbai City being back at this stage next season.



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