Last season when Bengaluru FC made a trip to Mumbai, they went back home as Indian Super League champions. They beat FC Goa in the final at Mumbai Football Arena. Manager Carles Cuadrat was all smiles, no complaints. Sunil Chhetri, their captain, leader, legend was over the moon when he lifted the trophy. It was a day they'll never forget.
This time when they made a trip to the same stadium, Bengaluru suffered an ignominious 0-2 loss against Jorge Costa's Mumbai City FC. Silly errors from players gifted their opponents the two goals. This time, the smile was missing on Cuadrat's face and he only had complaints. Chhetri left the ground fuming because his perfectly alright goal, which could've been an equaliser, was disallowed. It was the day their players will want to forget quickly.
A victory for Bengaluru on Friday would've pushed them to the top of the table, instead they are now stuck at 22 points from 13 matches. If ATK will win their next game, they would go above Bengaluru. If FC Goa end up winning theirs, they will be five points ahead of Cuadrat's team. Friday's defeat won't necessarily jeopardise Bengaluru's paly-offs ambitions, but the defending champions take pride in occupying top spot. That same pride is now hurt.
Mumbai, for all their inconsistency, have kept themselves in the race for the top four spot with the victory. Costa's team has prevailed over Bengaluru twice this season. The first one was 3-2 victory in December. Bengaluru have the best defence in the league if numbers are taken into account, but they have now conceded five goals against Mumbai in this season. Cuadrat said after the match that if both teams qualify for the semis, Bengaluru will hope that they don't face Mumbai again.
Bengaluru started with Manuel Onwu in the front with Chhetri and Ashique Kuruniyan on the wings. As usual, Dimas Delgado and Erik Paartalu featured in the midfield while Udanta Singh was on the bench. This was the same setup they used in their last win against Jamshedpur. Bengaluru were a better side in the opening minutes of the match, showing intent while going forward. They knew Mumbai will play the counter-attacking game so the idea was to score as quickly as possible and put their opponents under pressure from the start.
Mumbai have been conceding a lot of goals. They are the second worst side in defence after the last-placed Hyderabad FC. Costa made significant changes in the midfield. Sourav Das partnered Rowllin Borges in the centre while Diego Carlos was slotted on the wings. All three were outstanding throughout the game.
While Bengaluru were spraying passes in their opponent's half, trying to break the defence, all it took for Mumbai to break the deadlock was one good long ball in the 13th minute. Borges picked up the ball on the halfway line and passed it long to sprinting Modou Sougou on the right wing. Sensing the danger, Bengaluru goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu came running towards the ball and tried to punch it away, but couldn't reach on time. Sougou headed the ball inside the unprotected goal post to make it 1-0. Cuadrat had his hands up, asking Gurpreet why did he do what he just did. And Gurpreet probably had no answers to the question.
The goal made Bengaluru players angry. They thought they don't deserve to go behind so early in the match, but the fact is that they did deserve to go behind because of the ridiculous error. Tempers flared up with the slightest of pushes and cynical kicks to the legs. After scoring the goal, Mumbai had more control of the match. Carlos was a menace on the left, constantly giving headaches to the defenders with his runs. His left-footer shot from inside the box in the 35th minute was on target but Gurpreet palmed the ball away. In the 43rd minute, it was Carlos who provided the cross to Subhasish Bose who headed the ball inside the net but the goal didn't stand because of off-side.
Just before the half-time, Chettri made a run to the box after Delgado looped a pass. Sarthak Golui couldn't clear the danger and Chhetri unleashed a left-footer to beat Mumbai goalkeeper Amrinder Singh. Again, the goal didn't stand because the linesman had called it off-side but the replays showed that it was the wrong call.
Before the second-half could get underway, Cuadrat removed the ineffective Onwu and introduced Udanta. After few minutes, Eugeneson Lyngdoh replaced Nishu Kumar so that meant Harmanjot Khabra was slotted in the right back position. This is where the second mistake took place. Borges, once again, passed the ball long and Khabra instead of clearing it, headed the ball straight to Amine Chermiti who took one touch before beating Gurpreet from close range.
It seemed the 2-0 lead was good enough for Mumbai. Yes, the goals were gifts from their opponents, but the team looked much better on the the field compared to their previous two matches. The defence was better organised and the midfielders sat deep to counter Bengaluru's attack. The work rate from the players also stood out. It was a statement performance which showed that they will fight hard for the top four spot.
After the final whistle, Cuadrat walked straight to the middle of the pitch to shake hands with the officials and exchanged a word or two before disappearing into the tunnel.
"We made two mistakes in the construction of the game. With Mumbai, if you concede, it will be very difficult because they can defend very well. Then there was the second mistake, the second gift of the night. Congratulations Mumbai for receiving so many presents.
"The referee gave a nice present, not giving the goal to Sunil (Chhetri). I don't understand how I can see it clearly from the wing position, but the linesman can't see. These guys don't know football," Cuadrat said in the post-match press conference.
Costa agreed that the two goals were presents from Bengaluru but according to him, his side deserved to win the match.
"We had a very good game. We also had other chances to score more goals. Bengaluru had only one chance to score. We worked, we pressed from the first second to the last. I could be wrong but I think there is no question on who deserved to win tonight. This is one game that I hope we can repeat until the end of the season," Costa said.
With 19 points from 13 matches, Mumbai occupy the fifth spot, just two behind fourth-placed Odisha FC. Out of five remaining matches, four are against teams who sit below Mumbai. Consistency is the key for Costa and he would be hoping that Odisha slip up in their upcoming fixtures against Bengaluru, Goa and ATK.