December 19, 2021, Kerala Blasters FC and Mumbai City FC are preparing to engage in a titanic tussle in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL). This encounter, which wasn’t billed as a defining fixture for either team at the start of the season, has morphed into one of extraordinary importance.

Prior to the game, Mumbai City FC had trumped every challenge they had faced. They scored goals for fun, passed with panache and looked like a team that didn’t want to give away its Hero ISL crown easily. In many ways, the Islanders, even at that nascent stage of the season, seemed the club to beat.

Kerala Blasters FC, on the other hand, were chastened on the opening day by ATK Mohun Bagan. They recovered and stitched together an unbeaten run. Yet, it felt they needed a watershed performance to make the rest of the league sit up and take notice.

The match at the PJN stadium begins with the Islanders dominating the early exchanges. They fashion a couple of chances but aren’t able to make the net bulge, meaning that Kerala Blasters FC gradually establish a foothold in the game.

After a few minutes, the Islanders get frustrated at the lack of time and space. The Tuskers, meanwhile, are doing everything in their power to disrupt the defending champions’ rhythm. They are pressing them high up the pitch and are harrying them into mistakes.

In the 27th minute, Kerala Blasters FC’s perseverance pays off. A loose ball finds its way to Sahal Abdul Samad, and the Indian rifles the ball past Mohammad Nawaz. At first, this goal takes Mumbai City FC by surprise. They expected Kerala Blasters FC to give them a tough fight but were perhaps not prepared for the sort of challenge they were posing.

Minutes after the restart, the Islanders concede again – this time to a stunning volley from Alvaro Vazquez. Unlike the first goal, the Islanders, even if they tried, might not have been able to avoid this. Yet, in the larger context, it was a goal that they would not have wanted to give away.

Two minutes later, Mourtada Fall is also issued his marching orders. The wheels start coming off for Mumbai City FC and Kerala Blasters FC, courtesy of Jorge Pereyra Diaz, surge into an unassailable lead.

After the game, there is a lot of excitement across the board. For starters, not many had expected Mumbai City FC to lose in this fashion. Secondly, not many had expected Kerala Blasters FC to produce such a clinical display. Most importantly, though, arguably none had expected this result in the middle of December to define two vastly contrasting campaigns.  

The victory, which injected belief into Kerala Blasters FC, allowed them to remain unbeaten for five more games. During that sequence, they defeated Chennaiyin FC, Hyderabad FC and Odisha FC. They also drew against FC Goa and Jamshedpur FC, indicating that they could compete consistently against the best the league had to offer.

Mumbai City FC spiraled in the other direction. They kept squandering winning positions, conceded soft goals and had to wait until February 6 to get back to winning ways. The victory, which came about against Chennaiyin FC, wasn’t aesthetically pleasing. Yet, it was a result that told them they could, owing to their early-season dominance, still have a massive say in the semi-final conversation.

In fact, the win against the Marina Machans has ensured that a similar status quo (to the one that existed before their game against Kerala Blasters FC) has returned. Back then, the Islanders were leaving every opposition they faced in their wake. Now, they have won four of their five most recent matches.

Kerala Blasters FC haven’t been poor by any stretch of the imagination. They have won three of their past six fixtures. But they have also lost to the likes of Hyderabad FC and Jamshedpur FC, hinting that they aren’t at their best – much like they were prior to December 19.

From a more urgent perspective, both have semi-final spots to nail down as well. The problem, however, is that only one might get through – that too at the other’s expense.

Match 62 preview: Semi-final spot on the line - Kerala Blasters FC, Mumbai City FC face off in virtual knockout

At the moment, Mumbai City FC have 31 points from 18 matches. Kerala Blasters FC are a point adrift and have played the same number of games. Hence, the winner of this game would gain a direct advantage in the race for the top four. If it were to end in a draw, it might favour the Islanders, considering their destiny will still be in their own hands. 

Hence, a case could be made that Kerala Blasters FC are more desperate to bag three points on Wednesday, and that the defending champions might want to sit back. That, though, is fraught with danger. Not just because inviting a free-flowing Kerala Blasters FC offensive unit to attack isn’t the wisest idea, but also because it led to drastic consequences the last time they met.

In December, the Tuskers, with their high-intensity, high-octane style of football, blew the Islanders away. So much so that it took the latter nearly two months to recover. Now, Mumbai City FC have a chance to show that they have learnt from their mistakes.

There will be a sense of familiarity when these two sides clash again on Wednesday. Kerala Blasters FC, for all intents and purposes, will play a similar brand of football, with the defending champions trying to pass their way to victory.

It’s just that this meeting will have a little more at stake than usual. Last time out, Kerala Blasters FC won the battle. Now, Mumbai City FC have an opportunity to win the top four war. And whatever be the outcome, the rest of the league will sit up and take notice.