"We have a new team this season and we haven't had enough time to prepare for the new season together and we will get better as the season progresses." In the early days of the fifth season of the Indian Super League (ISL), one would more often than not hear Mumbai City coach Jorge Costa utter these lines whenever the opportunity arose. Maybe, as the cynics say, Costa was using the fact that the Mumbai squad had undergone an overhaul as an excuse for his side's uncertain performances in the opening matches. That notion would have strengthened after his side's capitulation in Goa as Sergio Lobera's side put five goals past the Islanders.
However, since then, Costa has managed to turn around his side's fortunes and thus, proving himself to the doubters. After conceding five goals against Goa, Mumbai have gone on a five-match unbeaten run and have kept four clean sheets in the process. That run has seen them climb to fourth in the points table " level on points with Goa " and just two points shy of second-placed NorthEast United FC having played a match less than the Highlanders.
On Thursday, Costa's men will be looking to replace NorthEast United in the second spot when they host beleaguered defending champions Chennaiyin FC at the Mumbai Football Arena.
The key to Mumbai's run has been Costa's pragmatic style of play, something which has impressed Chennaiyin manager John Gregory. But like Costa has been saying since the start of the season, the defensive solidity has been achieved only after his side was able to gel together and adapt to the Portuguese's style of play. Since the mauling at the Fatorda, Mumbai have transformed into a defensively solid unit with Costa emphasising on his players playing as a team with each player contributing to attack and defence in equal measure. The team is always above the individual.
"You will never hear me speak about an individual player in particular. I think it is not fair. All of them are doing their job and when it is like this, I am happy. When we score a goal, it's because Amrinder Singh has performed well in goal. When we end the match with a clean sheet, it is because Modou Sougou has defended well up front. For me, football is like this. How can I speak differently of each player when they play together as a team?" Costa said on Wednesday.
Mumbai have the best defensive record in the league after leaders Bengaluru and NorthEast United, having conceded only 10 goals so far. However, since then, they have only conceded twice with both goals coming against Delhi in their last match. After struggling to zero in on his preferred back four for the opening matches, Costa finally found an answer to his defensive troubles following the Goa loss. Subhashish Bose, who partnered Lucian Goian in the heart of the defence, was shifted back to his preferred left back spot. Former Bengaluru defender Joyner Lourenco has started as centre-back in the last five games and the 27-year-old has struck a very good partnership with the ever-reliable Goian.
With a solid defensive base to rely on, Costa has banked on the foreign trio of Sougou, Rafael Bastos and Arnold Issoko to contribute in front of goal. Pulling the strings in midfield is skipper Paulo Machado. The Portuguese has made the most number of passes for Mumbai this season and Costa can expect Machado to be targetted by Chennaiyin.
Season over for champions Chennaiyin?
Crowed champions for the second time in their history earlier this year, Chennaiyin have mounted a disastrous defence, to say the least. Gregory's men have won only once this season and are languishing at eighth position with just five points. Even if they win their remaining eight matches, Chennaiyin will finish with 29 points, one point less than last season's cut-off. Qualification for the semi-finals now seems more or less over for them.
"We're a long way off from the semi-finals and I think we need to win all the remaining eight games to even stand a chance of getting anywhere near the semi-finals. But football being football, nothing is impossible. We need to win some points for our pride as I think we have performed nowhere to our standards this season," Gregory said ahead of the match.
The Englishman will feel let down by his players who have performed way below their standards this season. The likes of Jeje Lalpekhlua and Anirudh Thapa have been poor this season. Contributing to their stunning loss of form has been the prolonged injury-forced absence of midfield enforcer Dhanpal Ganesh. Gregory admitted that had Dhanpal been available, Chennaiyin would have fared much better. With goals hard to come by and a misfiring Jeje up against a mean Mumbai defence, Chennaiyin once again start as underdogs this season.
Should Mumbai beat Chennaiyin, they will record their best-ever run in their history, something which they didn't manage in the 2016 season where they topped in the league stage. A win would be a much-needed boost ahead of their potential top of the table clash against Bengaluru on Sunday.