With revenge in mind, can high-flying Bengaluru FC halt the Mumbai City FC juggernaut?
The matchup of Bengaluru FC and Mumbai City FC won’t be an ordinary contest given that neither team has lost a single match in 2023, with only the Islanders having picked up more points (19) and scored more goals (21) than Bengaluru FC this year.
A few months back, Bengaluru FC found it hard to make their mark in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2022-23. Wading into troubled waters, the Blues witnessed a dip in their performances and results under head coach Simon Grayson.
Under Grayson, Bengaluru FC underwent several struggles in the ongoing season - the constant injuries, finding the perfect starting eleven, getting the right blend of tactics and formation, and even the on-field chemistry of the players.
In the first nine matches, Bengaluru FC collected only two wins, registered one draw, and faced six losses that saw them scoring only six goals while shipping in 12. They picked up only seven points out of a possible 27. The side failed to score a single goal for the first time during their four consecutive losses, their worst-ever run in the Hero ISL.
When all seemed to be going downhill, Grayson fashioned a unique formula after a constant dearth of goals, results, and unsatisfactory performances. After several tried and tested methods failed to give the desired results, the Englishman chose to go with a 3-5-2 formation, with a back three of Sandesh Jhingan, Alan Costa, and Parag Shrivas, in their last game of 2022, against East Bengal FC.
Though the side lost the game, there seemed to be a strong connection between the players in that particular system. The side dominated the game, and it seemed as if Grayson had finally found his ideal system, despite dropping the three points.
In the following game against NorthEast United FC in Guwahati, Grayson implemented the same system with a bit of changes in the personnel. The result? Bengaluru FC won 2-1. The win reinstilled faith not just into the players but also the entire team and the fans.
Hero ISL commentator Mark Tompkins believes this change has brought fortunes to Simon Grayson’s Bengaluru FC.
“Bengaluru FC have certainly looked like a different proposition since switching to the 3-5-2 formation, which they did for the first time against NorthEast United FC, which triggered this current six-match winning run they’re on. Simon Grayson opted to make the change from a disappointing 4-4-2. The same back three, with Sandesh Jhingan, Alan Costa, and Parag Shrivas, that he’s picked seems to be his preferred choice,” he says.
Since then, there has been no stopping Bengaluru FC, who have carved themselves out like a diamond under pressure. The following five games saw the side collecting full points. It felt like a new team under a new coach having repeated flashbacks of the previous season turned into several episodes of glory, reviving their hopes of claiming the enticing top-six spot.
An unchanged starting eleven in four straight matches against Odisha FC, Jamshedpur FC, Chennaiyin FC, and ATK Mohun Bagan had proved that Grayson had managed to effectively implement his system after several tweaks. His unique gameplan of implementing a three-man defence earned him plaudits from fans and critics alike.
In the bigger picture, the Blues have won 100% of the games in 2023 and picked up 18 points from six matches. No other team has a perfect record this year. Considering only matches from the current season, they were in 9th place and had picked up 10 points, with three wins and one draw from 12 matches in 2022. Their goal difference was -9 after scoring 8 and conceding 17 in their opening 12 matches.
However, come Wednesday, the revitalised Blues will face the brute force of the recently crowned Hero ISL Shield winners Mumbai City FC. The matchup of the two teams won’t be an ordinary contest given that neither team has lost a single match in 2023, with only the Islanders having picked up more points (19) and scored more goals (21) than Bengaluru FC this year.
The Des Buckingham-coached side have been simply sensational this year who come into the match on the back of not just an impressive unbeaten record, but also a magnificent away record that has seen them winning eight games and drawing just once out of nine games.
The Islanders boast of one of the most lethal, versatile, and prolific goalscorers that go beyond their attacking frontline. Having netted 53 goals this season, the highest in the Hero ISL history, the side has three players in the top five goal contributors. Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Greg Stewart, and Lallianzuala Chhangte have each contributed more than ten goals this season.
A full-strength and star-studded Mumbai City FC will be a force to be reckoned with for Grayson and his side, but the 53-year-old faces a tricky hurdle as he will be without two of his most crucial players in Parag Shrivas and talisman Roy Krishna. The two players will miss the game due to suspension by virtue of accumulating too many yellow cards.
This precarious circumstance crops up a problem with regard to the replacements of the missing duo. Hero ISL expert Phil Brown feels the replacements won't impact the side’s winning momentum, and the side can still cause problems for an unbeaten Mumbai City FC side.
“There are lots of ifs, buts, and maybes where Simon Grayson is concerned, but I would replace Parag with (Aleksandar) Jovanovic and Roy Krishna with Sunil Chhetri, keeping the same system. I think (Bruno) Ramires has done enough to play alongside Rohit Kumar. They’ll not be too many more changes, and therefore, the winning streak they are currently on, because of this system, will stand them in good stead against a very strong Mumbai City FC team,” Brown says.
With Chhetri as a replacement for Krishna, the side can hope for their no.11 to craft his magic and be the clutch player that the team needs. However, the Fijian striker has been of core importance in the attacking numbers of the Blues. He is the joint-highest goal scorer, and joint-highest assist provider for the club in the Hero ISL this season, with five goals and four assists. Of those nine goal contributions, five have come in the last five matches for the Blues. He has missed only six minutes of the six-match winning streak for Bengaluru FC. He has started every game in their record-equalling winning run so far.
Despite the absence of Krishna, Tompkins highlights Bengaluru FC’s ability to stop Mumbai City FC and believes that the side’s defensive aspect will be vital in determining the game’s outcome.
“Certainly the wing-back formation of Prabir Das and Roshan Naorem, both have great engines. Das has that brilliant experience, so when they’re on the defence, it’s a five-man defence with three centre-backs in the middle. That might be the best chance of stopping Mumbai City FC. The Blues have only conceded four goals in their current run and they’ve been much tighter at the back. They have come up with an incredibly good last line of defence in the last few matches,” he adds.
Brown, on the other hand, points out that the three-man defence of Bengaluru FC will shapeshift into a five-man defence, which can cause their opponents all sorts of problems.
“I don’t think Bengaluru FC’s three-man defence will remain a three-man defence against Mumbai City FC. It will be a five-man defence because they have lost a couple of players in the last game through suspension, one of them being centre-half Parag Shrivas and the other one being Roy Krishna. I think he’ll bring Jovanovic in to play alongside Jhingan and Costa. But Roshan and Prabir Das will be critical that they don’t commit too much going forward. So consequently, the three-man defence will be pinned back into a five-man defence because of Mumbai City FC’s quality,” he comments.
The clash between the two offers more than what meets the eye. Arguably, it can be about an offence versus defence battle, but the teams have also shown their brilliance in the midfield. With both teams stacked with quality midfielders, the two sides have more threats than weaknesses in the midfield, and that is where the game can be won or lost.
The potential midfield duo of Rohit Kumar and Suresh Singh Wangjam/Bruno Ramires faces the triad of Ahmed Jahouh, Apuia, and Greg Stewart. With multi-faceted players on both sides, the midfield has heavily dictated the play on both ends of the pitch for the two teams throughout the league.
Tompkins hints that the five-man Bengaluru FC defence can be the differential to the deadly midfield of Mumbai City FC.
“I’m really interested to see how Bengaluru FC can match up against Mumbai City FC. We know about them, they’re the League Shield winners, and they’re practically unstoppable with (Ahmed) Jahouh, (Greg) Stewart, and Apuia. The very potent front three as well, of Pereyra Diaz, Bipin (Singh), and (Lallianzuala) Chhangte. Can that back five stifle them? They haven’t come up against a back five many times this season and I’m really interested to see how Des Buckingham sets his side up,” he concludes.
In several ways, this mouth-watering fixture can go either way. Grayson’s side could be the ones to stop Mumbai City FC’s juggernaut, or maybe the Islanders will not let this fizzle away and continue their dream run. As for the neutrals, it just makes for a must-watch football match.