March 8, 2021, FC Goa and Mumbai City FC embroil themselves in a titanic second-leg at the Athletic Stadium in Bambolim. A few days ago, both teams had fought tooth and nail but had to settle for a 2-2 stalemate – a result that left both their Hero Indian Super League (ISL) final hopes hanging by a thread.

Thus, when they reconvened, many were intrigued to see how they would fare. Not just because the Gaurs and the Islanders had been two of the standout clubs throughout the season, but also because this rivalry, especially since the start of the 2020-21 campaign has been as fascinating as any.

Read: Mumbai City FC vs FC Goa: The rise of a rivalry

So, it is understandable that neither wants to give the other an inch. The pair battle each other for more than 210 minutes (across two legs), and still find themselves deadlocked. A dramatic penalty shoot-out ensues – a shoot-out that sees an extraordinarily high number of misses and ultimately ends 6-5 in the Islanders’ favour.

That game, apart from breaking Goan hearts, also injects the requisite impetus into Mumbai City FC’s season, meaning that when they encounter ATK Mohun Bagan in the summit clash, the Islanders hold their nerve and win their maiden Hero ISL crown.

Things, though, could have been very different had FC Goa scraped past Mumbai City FC in the semi-final. But they didn’t. That, however, only proved how this feud – one involving the Gaurs and the Islanders had the potential to shape the outcome of the Hero ISL.

A few months later, Mumbai City FC were pitted against the Gaurs again – this time in the opening fixture of the 2021-22 term. The Islanders, for those unaware, were just recovering after Sergio Lobera’s departure and had also seen a few of their star players leave for newer pastures.

Similarly, FC Goa were looking to bank on their bubbling band of youngsters and were hoping to build on their Durand Cup success – a tournament where their youthful exuberance shown throughout.

The encounter, which was pitted as one between two behemoths, didn’t quite live up to expectations. It was a far cry from the tense tussle both had engaged in at the Athletic Stadium, with the Islanders emerging victorious quite comfortably.

The contest, though, much like it had happened in March 2021, had far-reaching consequences for both clubs. Courtesy of the victory, Mumbai City FC were infused with the belief that they could repeat last season’s heroics. They stitched together a marvelous run that propelled them into the upper echelons of the points table, and their streak was only snapped by Kerala Blasters FC in mid-December.

FC Goa, on the other hand, questioned their style of play and its suitability to the Hero ISL after being exposed mercilessly by the Islanders. That patch of introspection has continued since and the Gaurs have not been able to establish any sort of momentum this season. They are firmly out of the reckoning for the semi-final spots too.  

However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t have a say in who gets there. As fate would have it, they have a chance to ensure that the Islanders, who still have their destiny in their own hands, stumble just enough to miss out on qualification.   

As things stand, Mumbai City FC sit fourth on the points table with 28 points from 17 matches and are a point ahead of Kerala Blasters FC. Both have played the same number of games and are yet to play each other, meaning that if the Islanders win all their games, they will qualify.

Even if the defending champions lose to FC Goa and get the better of Kerala Blasters FC, they can go through. But if it gets to that, the Islanders, more than any other club, would know how tricky it could get.

Thus, as has become the norm over the past couple of seasons, their encounter against FC Goa has the potential to define another campaign. Last time out, it was just the tonic they required to outlast the Mariners in the final. At the start of this term, it was enough to launch them towards the perch of the points table.

Now, it will, in all likelihood, decide whether they will defend their Hero ISL crown or not. There may not be much in it for FC Goa but the fact that they can throw a spoke in the Islanders’ wheel should be enough incentive.

After all, there is never a dull moment when these two behemoths of the Hero ISL meet. And there is never a compromise on the stakes attached either.