One Diego Mauricio goal was enough for Indian Super League club Mumbai City FC to win their final game of the Asian Champions League as well as their season in Riyadh on Wednesday. With this win, the Islanders finished Group B on two wins, becoming the first Indian team to collect victories at the highest continental stage. They also finished the group in second position thanks to a better head-to-head record against Air Force Club and then Al Shabab beating Al Jazeera in the other game of the night.
While not having qualified for the knockout stages despite being in a position to do so at one point, the two victories ensured Mumbai overachieved on their goals coming into the tournament. And in doing so, unlocked the next level of their confidence at a tournament where one of their group members had a budget five-to-six times higher than theirs.
Coach Des Buckingham admitted that it was their second game against Al Jazeera where a shift in the mentality as a collective group happened. The almost therapeutic moment took place after a 0-0 draw where most of the team, including the coach, came away with a feeling that this was a win lost and not a draw won.
With our landmark AFC Champions League journey coming to a close, here’s a look at how #TheIslanders fared as we finish 𝘀𝗲𝗰𝗼𝗻𝗱 in Group B! ✅#IslandersInAsia #ACL2022 #AamchiCity 🔵 pic.twitter.com/IZJSiCQ64G
— Mumbai City FC (@MumbaiCityFC) April 27, 2022
“We have created chances and the difference between the teams at this level has been the conversion of the chances. Adding the quality in the final third, which is the missing piece, that can be the massive difference at this level,” said Buckingham to a group of reporters prior to their final group stage match. A win that game would have essentially meant Mumbai would qualify for the knockouts.
Relying on Indian players
The two victories against Air Force Club and the two close games against Al Jazeera came with Mumbai having to play with nine Indian players at times. Their Asian player Bradden Inman from Australia contracted Covid-19 before the start of Mumbai’s two friendlies prior to the tournament. Once Inman flew to Riyadh, he was diagnosed with covid again and was made to wait for seven days. In this period, the Aussie’s match fitness levels made it hard to play him.
Mumbai also suffered because of not being able to play Igor Angulo. A prolific goalscorer who makes one goal in three chances every game, Angulo was the cutting edge that Mumbai missed. The Spaniard was out for most games due to a calf injury and only returned for the final two games.
🚨FT | 🇮🇳 @MumbaiCityFC 1️⃣-0️⃣ Air Force Club 🇮🇶
The Islanders end their campaign on a high note as they steal the Falcons’ chance at Round of 16. They become the most successful Indian club after accomplishing 2 wins in their maiden season 👏 #ACL2022 | #MUMvAFC pic.twitter.com/TmBqPZ8aLk
— #ACL2022 (@TheAFCCL) April 26, 2022
“Igor’s calf injury meant we needed to adapt our game style. We had players arrive here with Covid so we needed to allow them time to recover and get them to the level to which they could perform. We set up in three different ways across five games, in terms of our shape, structure and adaptability to get success both with and without the ball,” said Buckingham.
In Angulo’s absence, Mumbai utilized striker Diego Mauricio efficiently. Angulo’s role in the team is that of a poacher. But Mauricio allowed Mumbai to be more adventurous on the ball in this ACL campaign. He held the ball up in opposition halves routinely and was able to allow Mumbai’s midfield to move further up the field.
It unlocked space for Apuia Ralte who would then have the time and license to pick his passes. 21-year-old Ralte, who was signed from Northeast United FC at the beginning of the season and was part of India’s U-17 World Cup squad in 2017, was instrumental in Mumbai’s passing accuracy averaging around the high 70s and early 80s in their six matches. While not comparable to some of the best clubs of Asia, the passing accuracy shows that when it comes to keeping possession, India might have a midfielder to build around.
But the two games against Al Shabab was where Mumbai would rue their showing. Nine goals in two games conceded, none scored. In the second game where Al Shabab scored six goals, they had eight shots on target. Buckingham rightfully described it as ‘brutal’. But summing those two games up, Buckingham said that rather than the goals conceded it was why Mumbai conceded them that got them in a poor position.
Two is an Army 💪🏽
— #ACL2022 (@TheAFCCL) April 27, 2022
He said, “We can get away with some small things in the ISL. For example, how we press or how we set up defensively, and if one or two don’t quite get it quite right, then the players at this level can see that and take advantage of it.”
That was a lesson that Mumbai learned over their two games with Al Shabab, but a second-placed finish and seven points from six games was far more than what the Islanders would have dreamt off – especially after a poor ISL season that saw them come fifth. and lose out on an Asian spot for next season