Mumbai: Before kick-off at the Mumbai Football Arena in the first leg of the semi-final between Mumbai City FC and FC Goa, the West Coast Brigade unfurled a banner where the Indian Super League trophy was superimposed over an outline of the Gateway of India. The tagline above the illustration read: "Make us believe". At the end of a bruising ninety minutes, any hopes of Mumbai reaching their first-ever ISL final were duly snuffed out as Goa hammered the home side 5-1.
As both teams walk out to the pitch @WCBMumbai unveil a banner with the #ISL trophy superimposed on the Gateway of India urging @MumbaiCityFC to make them believe @FirstpostSports pic.twitter.com/n3gNezxbLj
- Dilip Unnikrishnan (@DilipUnnikrishn) March 9, 2019
Like in their away match in the league stage, Mumbai started the game on a positive note by pressing Goa high up the pitch in a bid to force errors. Arnold Issoko and Rafael Bastos used their physicality to good use while Raynier Fernandes ran around tirelessly after starting in the No 10 role.
The physical approach, however, was a bit much for referee Abdulla Alali. Bastos went into the referee's book in the 16th minute for protesting one of his decisions. That turned out to be one of the side stories of the match as Jorge Costa reacted animatedly whenever a call went against his side. He routinely berated the fourth official as well as the linesman on the near side. After the match, Costa walked straight up to the referees to give them a piece of his mind and refused to comment on their decisions in the post-match press conference.
The Islanders were duly rewarded for their tireless pressing in the 20th minute with a goal from Bastos. Arnold was able to get away from Mandar Rao Dessai on the right and he put in a brilliant cross towards the far post with the outside of his boot. Bastos ran in unmarked to slot the ball past Naveen Kumar.
After 200 minutes of action against Goa in the league during which they conceded seven goals, Mumbai had finally scored one against the Gaurs. Mumbai were more decisive and showed more composure than the side that lost 7-0 over two legs in the league stage. As Bastos was swamped by his teammates, little did they know that their joy would soon turn to despair.
Before the match, Mumbai had the joint second-best defensive record in the league having conceded only 20 goals. Considering they had let in seven against Goa, their record of conceding only 13 goals from the rest of their 16 matches showed what a defensively solid unit they have been throughout the season.
Strangely, all the solidity seems to vanish whenever Goa come calling. 11 minutes after scoring their first goal against Goa, Mumbai conceded a poor goal. Ferran Corominas was given the time and space to hit a low stinging shot from distance. Amrinder Singh, who tops the league in the number of clean sheets kept and the number of saves made, couldn't keep the ball in his grasp. Subhasish Bose, who has been one of the pillars of the Mumbai defence, strayed away from the defensive line. Not only did he keep Jackichand Singh onside, but also failed to prevent him from tapping in Goa's equaliser.
Subhasish's night went from bad to worse as he failed to mark Mourtada Fall during corners as the Goa defender headed in Goa's second and fourth goals of the night. One could only imagine what Costa must have felt about his defence considering he was the defensive lynchpin for Jose Mourinho's Porto side that won the 2004 Champions League.
If Goa's first, second and fourth goals were down to Mumbai's defensive errors, then their third goal was the perfect illustration of Sergio Lobera's style of play. Goa had the ball near the corner flag in their own half with Mumbai closing down on them. Any other team would have opted to shunt the ball up the pitch but not this Goa side. With a mixture of triangle passes and quick one-two-ones, Goa sliced through the Mumbai press and the ball was played out to Jackichand on the right wing. The Manipuri winger floated in a cross towards the back post where Corominas was allowed to head in unmarked.
Within 15 minutes of the second-half resuming, Mumbai were well and truly out of the tie. The two goals knocked the air out of Mumbai sails and any chance of a comeback was snuffed out by a ruthless display of attacking football from Goa. The home side's body language displayed the players' helplessness. Goa spent the rest of the half passing the ball around with ease past the drooped shoulders of Mumbai.
A rare break in the play showed the mental state of the Mumbai players. Their shoulders were slumped and they looked desperately towards the dugout for an answer. Subhasish and Joyner Lourenco, who collectively failed to mark Fall for Goa's fourth goal, remonstrated between themselves. The West Coast Brigade had fallen silent. The little pocket of Goa fans, however, were making enough noise for the entire stadium.
When Bastos was subbed off for Matias Mirabaje, the Brazilian trudged off towards the chairs behind Naveen Kumar's goal instead of sitting with the rest of his team in the dugout. A member of Costa's coaching staff had to then coax the Brazilian to join his team in the dugout towards the end of the match.
Even when leading 4-1, Goa never took their foot off the gas. They regularly found their way into the Mumbai box with ease. Seriton Fernandes struck the post from close range while Lenny Rodrigues forced Amrinder into a flying save from distance. Hugo Boumous, who came on in place of the excellent Ahmed Jahouh, also had a couple of chances to get Goa's fifth. However, it was Brandon Fernandes who finally landed the killer blow. The Goa No 10 latched on to a through pass from Boumous and curled a shot past Amrinder at the near post.
One could not help but be reminded of how a ruthless Barcelona led by Pep Guardiola hammered Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid all those years ago. On Saturday, Costa, who favours Mourinho's pragmatic approach, was handed a lesson in football by the former Barcelona coach Lobera.
Before the match, Costa said that his team had learned from their mistakes from the losses to Goa in the league stage and were psychologically ready for the Gaurs. The picture of Mumbai players with hands on their hips and crouching on the turf in disbelief painted an altogether different picture. If Mumbai were indeed over their mental block before the match, it is safe to assume that Saturday's result would be a hammer blow to their psyche.
Even if the Mumbai faithful hope for a miracle in the second leg in Goa, Costa's comments after the match have dampened fans' dream of an incredible comeback on Tuesday. "I don't believe in miracles," he said after the match. In order for the fans to believe in Mumbai City FC once again, the players and the staff have to start in believing in themselves again.