How Mohun Bagan SG won the ISL Shield

An absorbing and high quality match between Mohun Bagan SG and Mumbai City FC gave hope for the blossoming of Indian talent

The last time Mumbai City FC and Mohun Bagan Super Giant competed for the Indian Super League shield, in 2020-21, the match was in a Covid-19 bubble, sheltered from the virus and insulated from their supporters. But the two teams went head-to-head yet again on Monday, in another League shield showdown, in front of over 60,000, who packed and rocked the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.

They delivered a finale that was high on quality, and higher in drama. But Bagan came up with a decidedly superior performance when it mattered, stealing the show and the shield from Mumbai City FC with an entertaining 2-1 win. They finished the League stage at 48 points, the most by a team in ISL history and one more than their opponents.

This completed a trio of triumphs for Kolkata clubs. Earlier, East Bengal won the Super Cup while Mohammedan Sporting Club secured the I-League title and earned promotion to the Indian Super League.

With the League winners earning the only confirmed spot in Asian competitions—in AFC Champions League 2—a lot was at stake on Monday. The match between Bagan and Mumbai was billed as the best attack versus the best defence in the League. The ISL champions of last year versus the 2022-23 League Shield winners. Coming into the match, the Kolkata team had scored the most goals this season, 45, while Mumbai’s had been the stingiest defence, leaking only 17 goals.

Overcoming adversity

The fact that they were the two teams competing for the shield was a turnaround by itself. While Mumbai had seen coach Des Buckingham, who moulded the team into a winning outfit since 2021, return to England in December, Bagan had let go of title-winning coach Juan Ferrando in January and handed the reins back to Antonio Lopez Habas. Even Mumbai’s key playmaker Greg Stewart departed mid-way through the season, leaving a massive void in the team.

When Petr Kratky, who was parachuted in from sister club Melbourne City FC, took charge of the team they were sitting fourth in the table. It was Kratky’s first turn as the head coach in a top division, but he rounded up the troops effectively, making the most of the talent at his disposal and getting them to perform as a team.

Lallianzuala Chhangte and other Indian players have had a standout ISL season. (PTI)

Meanwhile, the defending ISL champions had made a strong start to their 2023-24 season as they won the Durand Cup and embarked on a seven-match unbeaten streak. In an attempt to strengthen the attack, the coach had thrown out the more adventurous four-man defence and opted for three defenders. The wheels came off when they faced the Islanders in Mumbai. In a high-voltage clash, which became better known for seven red cards, Mumbai handed Bagan a 2-1 defeat. On Monday, they kept it to a modest 10 yellow cards and 1 red (Brendan Hamill).

After two more defeats in as many matches, the Kolkata club decided to part ways with Ferrando. Habas, who had led ATK Football Club (ATK merged with Mohun Bagan AC to become Mohun bagan Super Giant in 2020) to a title win in the inaugural ISL season in 2014 and later in the 2019-20 season, and understood the ebbs and flows of the Indian League better than anyone, took over as the interim coach in January. He demanded greater cohesion, better energy and improved performance, and the team delivered. From No. 5 on the table, they rose to the very top.

Mumbai not only held a two-point advantage going into the final day of the ISL 2023-24 League stage, they were on a nine-match unbeaten streak; nor had they ever lost to Mohun Bagan since the legacy club made its foray into the ISL in 2020. The fanciful statistics, however, didn’t add up to a winning formula on the field on Monday.

Perhaps unsettled by the atmosphere created by some of the most passionate fans in the country, or the weight of the moment finally bearing on them, Mumbai were slow off the blocks. Their transformation that had looked so seamless under Kratky, started cracking. And they were made to pay by a clinical and driven Bagan, who started with a 3-2-4-1 formation and dominated proceedings early on.

A landmark season

With the ISL completing 10 years, this was a landmark season for the League. It had been launched in 2014 with much fanfare and the fervent hope that Indian football talent would finally get a platform. Results haven’t been instant, but they have been improving. Over the years Indian players, with the four foreigners (3 + 1 Asian player) rule in place, have been plugged into defence or utility roles. But with time they are surging forward. This season marked the first time that three Indian players made 10 or more goal contributions—Manvir Singh (Bagan) had three goals and seven assists, Vikram Partap Singh (Mumbai) with seven goals and three assists, and Lallianzuala Chhangte (Mumbai) with seven goals and six assists.

Moreover, the Indian core—players like Chhangte, Bipin Singh, Lalengmawia ‘Apuia’ Ralte, Rahul Bheke and Mehtab Singh—was the reason why Mumbai City survived, and thrived, despite the changes at the top. Vikram Partap Singh, who possesses lightning pace on the wing, has graduated from a super sub to a regular and is the highest scorer among Indian players in the League.

For Mohun Bagan SG, Manvir Singh has been one of the most consistent performers. A speedy winger, he has the knack for creating space and delivering menacing crosses, which star strikers like Dimitrios Petratos feed off.

The top goal contributions by Indian players at the ISL.

The top goal contributions by Indian players at the ISL.

The Bagan supremacy

On Monday evening, it was another Indian, Liston Colaco, who drew first blood for Mohun Bagan with a screaming strike in the 28th minute. Dropped from the previous game, Colaco was eager to prove a point. He ran in from the left, latched onto the ball and danced past Mehtab to send the ball into the top corner.

Though this Bagan team hasn’t used the overly defensive template of Habas’ previous sides, they were solid in defence. While Vikram was missing due to suspension, they suffocated Chhangte and blunted Mumbai’s attack in the final third. Chhangte, AIFF’s player of the season last year, had a chance to level the score just before half-time, but couldn’t tap in the ball cleanly.

For possibly the first time this season Mumbai looked lost for ideas; their chief creator Alberto Noguera didn’t fire either and was substituted in the second-half. Even as Mumbai was searching for the elusive goal, they let their guard down and were hit by Bagan on the counter. Jason Cummings scored in the 80th minute to take the game beyond Mumbai. Though Chhangte attempted a late revival by converting a half-volley in the 89th minute, it wasn’t enough for the visitors.

While Bagan danced and celebrated into the night, all is not lost for Mumbai City FC. As they learnt last season—the hard way—they could win the shield and still lose the ISL title. They will now have a shot at the championship as the ISL knockouts begin on 19 April. Bagan and Mumbai City FC have already earned their semi-final berths by virtue of being the top two teams in the League. But Odisha FC, Kerala Blasters, FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC are all still in the mix and could upstage either of the Kolkata and Mumbai teams to finish with the silverware in the finals on 4 May.

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.


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