Football ISL:  Mumbai City, Mohun Bagan battling it out for supremacy
ATK Mohun Bagan depend on their defensive mightArjun Singh/ISL

Football ISL: Mumbai City, Mohun Bagan battling it out for supremacy

Fatorda, January 10, 2021

On Monday, the ATK Mohun Bagan juggernaut faces one of the toughest tests they will all season when they take on league leaders Mumbai City FC in one of Hero Indian Super League's most anticipated affair at the Fatorda Stadium.

In what could be a potential six-pointer, the clash of the top two teams could set the tone for the second half of the season. Not only bragging rights are at stake, but the fight for top spot could get even feistier with Asian Champions League qualification the biggest incentive before the playoffs roll in.

Having scored 16 goals so far, Mumbai City has the best attack in the league with a goal conversion rate of 15.84%. They have scored in their last eight games. ATKMB undeniably has the best defense, having maintained 7 clean sheets in nine games, and are yet to concede a goal from open play this season.

While the stats indicate the match would be a battle of attack against defence, ATKMB coach Antonio Habas brushed aside the claims. "I don't think that Mumbai is a team that only attacks. They have good progressional play and counter-attacks. It's very difficult to stop their team because they always play forward but I don't think it's a match between attacking and defending because football is a game of attacking and defending. Both teams have transitions from one side to the other," he said.

“The importance of a match depends on the moment. Now, it's a match between the first and second teams. Maybe two or three weeks later, the match may not have the same importance but the idea is to play the same way,” he added.

Mumbai City FC coach Sergio Lobera has kept his team unbeaten following a defeat on opening day. The real test for the Spaniard however awaits when he faces ATKMB, who are also on a five-match unbeaten run. However, Lobera felt that the match wouldn’t determine the course of the league and said, “I think it's going to be important but not a crucial game. It's just halfway and in this competition anything is possible. Anything can change in a short time. Most important thing is now to keep our focus and improve our game,”

Though there are no injury concerns for the Spaniard, he will miss the services of Ahmed Jahouh, who received his second red card of the season. But the coach has based his principles on team play over individual dependence.

“Jahouh is an important player for us but I have a very good squad and there cannot be excuses about this,” he said. “Most important for me is teamwork. It's not about individuality. We are good players but you need to work as a team.”

“When you finish one game, the next game is the most important game. The situation is the same for tomorrow. It's going to be difficult as we are going to play against a good team. ATK Mohun Bagan are doing a good job,” he said.

The two heavyweights of the league have been trading the top spot with every outing, hardly breaking a breath. Such has been the dominance that Mumbai and MB are 7 and 5 points clear of third-placed Hyderabad, respectively, with a game in hand.

The two teams have been head and shoulders above the rest with Mumbai leading MB by just two points.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the battle for the top spot will be between these two teams, so much so, that even the former Head Coach of Bengaluru Carles Cuadrat conceded that the rest of the 9 teams seem to be fighting for the remaining two spots in the top 4.

And it doesn’t come as a surprise that the masters of the surge of both clubs are the two most successful coaches in the history of the league – Sergio Lobera and Antonio Lopez Habas. The latter is one of the most decorated coaches in the league, winning the league twice with MB.

Fellow Spaniard Lobera may employ a playing style that is an anti-thesis to Habas' but has consistently churned out some of the best teams to play in the country. His FC Goa side won the league stage last season albeit a couple of matches after Lobera's untimely departure.

The 2020-21 season was a landmark one for both teams, arguably changing the landscape of Indian football's ecosystem. Mumbai received a major boost when they were acquired by the City Football Group, the Abu Dhabi-based conglomerate that owns Manchester City .

That not only brought them one of ISL's best coaches in Sergio Lobera, but also some high-profile players like Adam Le Fondre and Bartholomew Ogbeche, turning them into one of the league's best squads overnight. Meanwhile defending champions ATK merged with Mohun Bagan and gained a century worth of incredible history and a passionate set of fans.

The dominance that both teams have been able to exert has been down to some stand-out players. For MB, there is Roy Krishna, the Fijian who propelled the erstwhile ATK to the title last season and who has been no less influential this term. Their keeper Arindam Bhattacharja has arguably been the best in the league, keeping more clean sheets than anyone else so far.

Meanwhile, for Mumbai, Adam Le Fondre has lived up to the expectations of his tryst with ISL so far, with six goals and the promise of more to come. Lobera’s key personnel at FC Goa, Hugo Boumous, has also delivered for him, scripting goals with the most assists.

While the Indian football ecosystem continues to evolve and redefined by the day, this rivalry seems to be one of the most decorated and promising, to catch eyeballs across geographies.

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