Mourtada Fall of Mumbai City FC scores a goal during the Indian Super League match between Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan, at the GMC Stadium, Bambolim.(PTI)
Mourtada Fall of Mumbai City FC scores a goal during the Indian Super League match between Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan, at the GMC Stadium, Bambolim.(PTI)

The last four standing in ISL

  • While Mumbai and Goa dominate possession, Bagan and NorthEast prefer to not have the ball.
By Bhargab Sarmah, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAR 02, 2021 08:20 AM IST

The Indian Super League (ISL) playoff fixtures have been decided and it has got Pep Guardiola talking. “Incredible success. It is part of the CFG family. Now comes the play-off. Hopefully they can do well. Congratulations to all the people. Every league is tricky and when you win it is well deserved,” said the Manchester City manager on Monday, hours after Mumbai City FC emerged league winners. On Sunday night, Manchester City had tweeted their congratulations to Mumbai, who are part of the City Football Group that is headlined by Guardiola’s team.

Up against Mumbai City are last season’s table-toppers FC Goa. The other match-up sees Khalid Jamil’s NorthEast United take on a strong ATK Mohun Bagan side that finished second in the league phase.

The two ties will feature some interesting storylines, not least Sergio Lobera and a few of his Mumbai City players facing their former employers, now coached by another Spaniard in Juan Ferrando. Or Antonio Lopez Habas – at 63, the oldest of the three Spanish head coaches in the last-four stage – chasing his third ISL title. Then there is Jamil, the only Indian head coach – albeit interim – who will look to continue his side’s unbeaten run under him. A run that has included six wins and three draws.

The last time Mumbai City took on Goa, it ended in a dramatic 3-3 draw. Mumbai had led 2-0 only for Goa to level proceedings early in the second half. Then, Rowllin Borges scored what looked like a winner for Lobera’s side but Ishan Pandita equalised right at the death.

Mumbai have been the most dominant side in the ISL this season, as underlined by their league position. While the expensively assembled side has dominated playing an expansive, attacking game, Bagan have matched them in terms of points by doing the opposite and playing an often reactionary brand of football.

Contests between similar sides

Like Lobera’s side, Ferrando’s Goa are quicker passers and tend to get more touches on the ball than their opponents.

In 20 games, Mumbai have more made passes than any other team this season; their total of 9,739 is slightly more than Goa who are second with 9,665 passes. SC East Bengal, who finished ninth, are third with 8,193 passes. With 12,392, Mumbai also top the number of touches. Again, Goa are second with 12,348 and Hyderabad third with 10,873.

Both teams like to have more of the ball and average possession stats this season illustrate the same. Goa are top in this metric with 61.9% average possession while Mumbai are second with 60.1%. East Bengal come a distant third with 52.8%.

The teams in the other semi-final are polar opposites when it comes to domination of the ball. Bagan (6,529) and NorthEast (6.433) have played the least number of passes. Bagan are eighth in terms of total touches (9,636) while NorthEast are last in this regard too (9,254).

In terms of average possession, Bagan and NorthEast seem to subscribe to Jose Mourinho’s philosophy that the team that keeps the ball less reduces the possibilities of making errors. Bagan are eighth again with a figure of 45.3% while NorthEast are last here as well with 42.1% average possession.

Bagan’s strong backline

What gives Mumbai a distinct advantage over Goa is their superior defence. While Hugo Boumous, Adam Le Fondre, Bartholomew Ogbeche, Bipin Singh and others have led the attack, Mourtada Fall has proved to be a shrewd investment with Ahmed Jahouh and Rowllin Borges ably supporting the backline from midfield. They have conceded 18 goals and kept nine clean sheets – behind only Bagan in both counts.

Goa, in comparison, have been leaky at the back, managing just three clean sheets. They have also conceded 23 goals. Using three different goalkeepers throughout the season probably hasn’t been of great help. Missing influential midfielder Alberto Noguera and key defender Ivan Gonzalez in the first leg of the semi-final due to suspension will also impede Ferrando’s team. But Goa have shown they can hurt any team, as many of their late goals can testify to.

Before their final flourish which included wins against Odisha (6-1) and ATK Mohun Bagan (2-0), Mumbai suffered a minor blip in the league that included losses to NorthEast, Bengaluru and Jamshedpur. With Igor Angulo leading Goa’s attack, Mumbai will need to be careful.

On the other hand, till the last two games in which they shipped four, Bagan’s defence has been the most difficult to crack this season. Bagan ended the league phase with the least goals conceded (15) and most clean sheets (10). Sandesh Jhingan and Tiri have been at the heart of the defence but with Jhingan was substituted due to injury on Sunday and its extent not yet known. The Spaniard Tiri too was replaced in the last two games. Bagan also have arguably the best forward in the league in Fijian Roy Krishna, who leads the race for the golden boot with 14 goals.

In NorthEast, they face an opposition that has been able to recalibrate its style of play according to the situation. The team has improved under Jamil on both fronts, scoring 18 goals and conceding 10 in nine games, although with only two clean sheets. Under Jamil’s predecessor Gerard Nus, they had scored 13 and conceded 15 in 11 games, with three clean sheets.

Deshorn Brown, who signed for NorthEast from Bengluru in January, has played a big part in the improved run in the second half of the season, scoring five goals in nine appearances. Winger Luis Machado and midfielder Federico Gallego have also been crucial in attack, while Benjamin Lambot and Dylan Fox have been at the heart of the backline.

Bagan will start favourites against NorthEast but the latter won the last game between them 2-1 and will be confident of springing a surprise again. But having lost the coveted Champions League spot to Mumbai, Bagan will be desperate to salvage the campaign by winning the ISL trophy.

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