December 1, 2021, ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC have endured slightly contrasting trajectories before finding themselves on a collision course at the PJN Stadium, Goa in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL).

The Islanders, who came into the season full of confidence, began their campaign pristinely and disposed FC Goa’s challenge in their opener. A game later, they succumbed to Hyderabad FC, meaning that when they met the Mariners, there were questions marks over the sustainability of their excellence this term.

ATK Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, had thumped Kerala Blasters FC in their opening game. And, had treated SC East Bengal with similar disdain, scoring seven goals and conceding just two goals during that sequence. Thus, the fixture against Mumbai City FC was another chance for them to flex their muscles – that too with the entire nation watching.

Unfortunately for the Mariners, they came a cropper against the Islanders. The bigger sub-plot, though, was that Mumbai City FC didn’t just beat ATK Mohun Bagan. They absolutely obliterated them.

A 5-1 reverse usually tells the story but that match, which was witnessed by thousands and evoked varying expressions from shock to awe, could’ve taken a worse turn for the Mariners. The Islanders were simply that good.

Post that, Mumbai City FC developed a massive head of steam. They won their next three games, posting score-lines of 3-1 (against Bengaluru FC), 4-2 (against Jamshedpur FC) and 1-0 (against Chennaiyin FC). But then, their momentum was brought to a grinding halt by Kerala Blasters FC on December 19. The Islanders were thumped 3-0 and they haven’t won a Hero ISL fixture since.   

Read: Mumbai City FC's 'pressing problems': Why the Islanders are leaking goals in a heap

ATK Mohun Bagan, meanwhile, struggled to recover from the drubbing the Islanders inflicted on them. They could only manage two points in their next three matches, conceded five goals, scored four and did away with Antonio Lopez Habas’ services – a decision that seemed unimaginable at the start of the season but a move that the Mariners perhaps needed to make, just to shake things up a little.

To an extent, that has paid dividends. ATK Mohun Bagan are unbeaten under Juan Ferrando. They are still shipping a few goals but are finding ways to make the net ripple at the other end too, meaning that they have cast themselves as genuine title contenders.

They have overcome an unnerving Covid-19 breakout in their camp as well, suggesting that the grit, determination and perseverance – qualities that they have long been associated with, is running through the Mariners’ veins again.

All of that, though (for both teams) might not count for much when ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC clash on Thursday. Not just because football is hardly ever played on paper and in the past, but also because the stakes, which have been exemplified owing to recent results, couldn’t have been higher.

As things stand, the Mariners find themselves comfortably placed 5th, having garnered 19 points from 11 games. Bengaluru FC, who sit 4th have 20 points and have played three more matches. To put things into further perspective, ATK Mohun Bagan could storm to the perch of the table if they win the games they have in hand over Hyderabad FC (the current table toppers with 26 points).

Read: Match 80 Preview: ATK Mohun Bagan look for first-ever win against Mumbai City FC

A slightly grimmer picture is painted for Mumbai City FC. Owing to their brilliant start, they still find themselves in a position to qualify. The worrying bit, however, is that they have to spark a significant upturn in fortunes if that is to happen.

It sounds very ridiculous but the Islanders might not really mind facing ATK Mohun Bagan. Not just because the defending champions have vivid memories of the damage they caused earlier in the season, but also because the Mariners have never beaten Mumbai City FC in the Hero ISL. 

Last season, the pair tussled thrice (twice in the group stages and once in the final). While the Islanders won the group games with a combined score-line of 3-0 (1-0 and 2-0), they pipped the Mariners in the summit clash via a 2-1 margin. 

Interestingly enough, ATK Mohun Bagan dominated possession in just one of the aforementioned encounters – the 2-0 defeat to Mumbai City FC. On all other occasions, the Islanders have bossed the ball and have reaped the rewards.

The key though, is that those ATK Mohun Bagan teams were drilled with defensive organisation and a tendency to not go searching for possession. Under Ferrando, things are slightly different, meaning that this could be the best opportunity for the Mariners to break their Mumbai City FC hoodoo.

Conversely, Des Buckingham seems to have taken a backward step and seems to have compromised on his side’s extravagance, opting for a more cautious approach against NorthEast United FC.

During that encounter, the Islanders allowed the Highlanders possession and considering Khalid Jamil’s teams like to play on the counter-attack, that could be a sign of the tack being tweaked at Mumbai City FC.

Read: We must be as strong as possible in the last eight matches, says Des Buckingham

These changes, whether it be the contrasting trajectories teams have traversed in the past month or the installation of new managers, have added another layer of intrigue to a rivalry that has produced several fascinating renditions.

Back in December, it seemed (at least for a while), that that particular fixture would define both teams’ campaigns. In February, both teams, rather eerily, enter with similar backgrounds, and having seen that earlier match morph into just another battle, rather than a season-changing war.  

Whenever ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC meet, a spectacle for the ages is produced. The last season and the madness of the Hero ISL final is a perfect example.

This time out, this game might not decide where the title will end up. But you can’t deny that this, just like it was in March and December 2021, has enough potential to rejuvenate seasons. With the talent at each side’s disposal and the stature of these clubs, you wouldn’t have had it any other way either.