Mumbai City FC and NorthEast United FC meet again, hoping to right the wrongs of their previous meeting

27th December 2021, Mumbai City FC have just been chastened in the Hero Indian Super League by Kerala Blasters FC and are looking to bounce back against NorthEast United FC. Prior to the game against the Tuskers, the Islanders had looked the team to beat in the league and were finding ways to win different types of matches.

Thus, the encounter against the Highlanders has gained increased importance. Not just because three massive points are at stake, but also because the defending champions want to prove that the defeat to Kerala Blasters FC was just a minor blip on the potential road to success.

The Islanders begin the game solidly and carve open a few chances for themselves. They aren’t able to capitalize though, meaning that when Deshorn Brown is presented an opening, he makes the net bulge and casts NorthEast United FC into the ascendancy.

That goal, however, only wakes up the defending champions from their slumber. They produce a three-goal salvo in twenty minutes (either side of half-time) and fashion a 3-1 lead – a lead that isn’t just deserved but also tells the rest of the league that they mean business again.

Unfortunately, in the most uncharacteristic of manners, they succumb to the Highlanders’ pressure after the break. They accord NorthEast United FC vast expanses of space on the counter attack and inevitably, get punished. The Islanders, who had also been lauded for their well-drilled high-press and ability to eradicate gaps between their defensive and midfield lines, seem too penetrable.

All of a sudden, the Islanders, courtesy of their tussles against KBFC and the Highlanders, had conceded six goals in two matches. Apart from the concession, though, there was also a feeling that the defending champions were just losing their way, which considering their dominance at the start of the season seemed paradoxical.

Their next contest (against Odisha FC) followed a similar pattern. Mumbai City FC were excellent in the first half and produced arguably the most free-flowing 45 minutes of their Hero ISL season. Yet, as the minutes ticked by, they kept exposing themselves at the back, meaning that the Juggernauts, who were preying on counter-attacking situations, made merry.

Similarly, Bengaluru FC made the most of whatever spaces the Islanders left behind. While the defending champions couldn’t exert as much control in the first half against the Blues, their inability to keep things tight, especially when the opposition began turning the screw, would have caused more than a furrowed brow or two.

To add further context, Mumbai City FC haven’t won a Hero ISL fixture since the defeat to Kerala Blasters FC. They have played four more games during that sequence and haven’t conceded more than three goals only once (against SC East Bengal). So, it is fair to say that while KBFC landed the first scratch, the Highlanders truly converted it into a gash.

That, coupled with their inability to make the net ripple as often – they have only scored 6 goals in their six most recent matches, has made people contemplate if something isn’t quite clicking in their ranks.

Not only are they shipping goals in a heap, but they also aren’t able to find that cutting edge to put the game beyond the opposition – something that seemed unimaginable at the start of the campaign.

Before drawing any conclusions, though, it must be remembered that the team in question is Mumbai City FC – a side that has previously shown the gumption for a fight and has portrayed the requisite pedigree to sustain a title challenge. After all, they were considered title favourites for a reason.

Moreover, they have now had time to reflect on what went wrong in a manic run of fixtures in December – a run where they seemed off the pace and lacked the usual conviction that is synonymous with the Islanders.

While uncertainty in the COVID-19 era and in a bio-bubble is something they could’ve done without, it has certainly given them enough to take in a deep breath, assess the situation and inject wind into their sails, all over again.

The poetic bit is that their slump, which was truly magnified after they threw away a two-goal cushion against NorthEast United FC, can be snapped against that very opposition come Tuesday. Back then, Brown tormented their defensive line but with the striker’s availability under an injury cloud, it could be an omen for the Islanders to leave an imprint on the Hero ISL.

From NorthEast United FC’s perspective, they haven’t really built on that positive result against the defending champions. If anything, that performance remains a benchmark for the levels they want to achieve but levels they have, rather unfortunately, not been able to scale consistently enough.

To that end, they might be thrilled with their January business, which has seen the likes of Marcelinho and Marco Sahanek enter the fray. Neither could impact the game against Chennaiyin FC on Saturday but there were glimpses that they could conjure something magical in the weeks that remain.

Either way, this match seems to have plenty of narratives to keep an eye on. Another defeat for Mumbai City FC would raise the decibel levels of discontent, whereas a victory might reinforce the belief that the second half of December and the first half of January was just an aberration.

Similarly, if the Highlanders can get the better of the Islanders, they might fancy their chances of being party poopers for a few more Hero ISL outfits, although a defeat would most certainly put them out of contention for the semi-final spots.

On December 27th, when both teams had just celebrated Christmas and were hoping for the festive period to provide some respite, neither would’ve envisioned that fixture to have such a massive bearing on the rest of their campaign.  

Now, they know how much significance is attached to this encounter and that, in itself, is a gauge of how crucial each fixture is going to be moving forward. And, of course, how myriad storylines align with each other in the Hero ISL.

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