In the pre-match press conference before Bengaluru FC faced table-toppers Mumbai City FC, coach Simon Grayson was reminded that his Bengaluru side was the last team to beat Mumbai, way back in September in the Durand Cup final. A surprised Grayson struck a sheepish smile before quipping that this was the only thing his team needed to know to win three crucial points in their race to secure a playoff spot in the Indian Super League.
While Grayson’s remark was tongue in cheek, his team realised his words and secured a memorable 2-1 win over Mumbai City at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Wednesday. It was a win that also ended The Islanders’ dream of going unbeaten in the league.
Despite being on a six-match winning run, Bengaluru went into the match as underdogs. To make matters worse, The Blues were without one of their best player this season, Roy Krishna, who was suspended after accumulating too many yellow cards.
It seemed luck was on Bengaluru FC’s side on Wednesday as Mumbai lost Greg Stewart to a freak injury after the Scotsman rolled his ankle while stepping out for the pre-match warm-up. It showed the ridiculous depth in the Mumbai side that the silky Alberto Noguera stepped up to take Stewart’s spot in the line-up. Not a bad replacement at all.
But the hosts also had a strong replacement for Krishna, as India captain Sunil Chhetri started his first match of the new year for Bengaluru FC as Grayson set up his team with five at the back with Chhetri and Siva Sakthi Narayanan leading the line. The Blues had come with a solid plan. Knowing that Mumbai’s superior midfielders would dominate possession, they ceded space in the middle of the park while man-marking the attacking trio of Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Bipin Singh. And as the match panned out, the plan worked to perfection.
“We had to stick to our game plan, whether it was Greg (Stewart) or (Alberto) Noguera. We carried out everything that we’ve worked on the last few days and spoke about in the team talk, we didn’t change our plan or anything like that. We just made sure that we carried out what we had asked them to do. And they certainly did that. We showed purpose, passion, good quality. To beat Mumbai City is an unbelievable achievement,” Grayson said in the post-match press conference.
The trio of Sandesh Jhingan, Aleksandar Jovanovic and Bruno Ramires contained the Mumbai attack while the pair of Suresh Wangjam and Rohit Kumar barely put a foot wrong in midfield.
It also helped that Mumbai looked out of pace in the match. Gone were the quick and intricate passing moves. Ahmed Jahouh and Noguera were also guilty of losing possession with poor passes while Chhangte and Singh rarely got the ball in areas where they could create attacking options. Perhaps The Islanders were still coasting with the high of winning the ISL League Shield only days ago.
“You don’t want to lose a game, of course, but that feeling of losing, I don’t think sometimes it’s a bad thing just to reset and go again. But you need to deserve to win the game as well. We didn’t create our usual free-flowing football this evening. We didn’t create enough chances to convert those into enough goals to win the game as we did against (FC) Goa,” Mumbai coach Des Buckingham said.
Chhetri rolls back the years
Despite not seeing much of the ball, Bengaluru FC looked the more threatening side going forward thanks to the relentless running of Chhetri and Siva. Watching the pair harangue the Mumbai defence off the ball or giving chase to lost causes with equal tenacity, one wouldn’t say that there was almost a two decade age-gap between the two forwards.
The first big chance of the match fell Bengaluru’s way in the eighth minute. Javi Hernandez played an inch-perfect through ball splitting the Mumbai defence. In a race against Vignesh Dakshinamurthy (age 24) and Mehtab Singh (also age 24), Chhetri (age 38) got on the end of the ball and chipped it over the on-rushing Phurba Lachempa. It was unfortunate that the chip had no real power behind it as Mehtab recovered to clear it well before it got close to the goal.
That should have been a warning to the Mumbai defence of the night they had in store for them. In the next 15 minutes, Mumbai would lose possession at the edge of the box to the two-man press allowing Chhetri to test his luck from range.
Mumbai’s first big chance of the game came only near the end of the half when Jahouh’s pass from the deep towards Pererya Diaz was missed by the Blues’ defence. Bipin Singh raced on to it from the left but Gurpreet Singh Sandhu made a very good save with his feet to keep the match goalless. Bengaluru had another big chance right at the stroke of half-time when Bruno Ramires found himself in acres of space right in front of goal but only to send his free header wide from the goalline off a Javi Hernandez free-kick.
That Ramires chance should have been a warning for Mumbai of the danger Bengaluru possessed from set-pieces. Five minutes into the second half, Javi swung in a free-kick from the left which evaded everyone in the Mumbai defence and just missed the oncoming Rohit at the back post.
The home side deservedly took the lead in the 57th minute when Chhetri ghosted in at the back post to head in Javi’s corner. The Fortress erupted as it has done so many times before for their beloved talisman and leader. This was a vintage Chhetri goal – reading the flight of the ball perfectly, jump to twice your height and power in a header that the goalkeeper has no chance saving.
The Blues doubled their lead a quarter of an hour later when Jovanovic caught the Mumbai defence off guard to breeze into the penalty box. With all the time in the world, the Australian cut the ball back to Javi to smash it into the roof of the net. Cue wild celebrations in the Kanteerava led by Grayson himself. As The A-Team’s John “Hannibal” Smith would say, you love it when a plan comes together.
That jolted Mumbai into action. They were back to being the team that had gone 18 matches unbeaten in the league. They pulled a goal back in the 77th minute when Mourtada Fall tapped in substitute Royston Griffith’s header past Sandhu.
But Bengaluru were running on pure belief and sheer will power which had seen them win an incredible six matches on the trot. They weren’t going to drop the ball now. Mumbai poked and prodded at the Bengaluru defence. Rowllin Borges came very close 10 minutes from the end when his devilish free-kick wrong footed Sandhu but went past the other side of the post.
When the whistle blew for full-time, there was a collective release of pent-up emotions at the Kanteerava. Not only for what the underdogs had pulled off against The Best Team in the league, but also how the win marked the high-point on an incredible mid-season turnaround. According to Opta, only Mumbai, with their 11-match winning run this season, have won more matches on the trot than Bengaluru’s seven.
“I’d be lying if I thought we would win seven games on the trot because it’s very difficult to do even if you’ve had a good start to the season but I always believed that we weren’t too far away from it. I kept on saying, if we eradicate the mistakes we make in the back and be a little bit more clinical at the top end of the pitch, then we’re not too far away. And it will click at some point,” Grayson said.
At the halfway mark in the season, even the most optimistic of Bengaluru fans would have scarcely imagined their side going on a seven-match winning streak let alone hand Mumbai their first loss of the season. After Wednesday’s win, even the most pessimistic of Bengaluru fans can be forgiven for dreaming of another ISL title.