The Islanders will be competing in the AFC Champions League next season and should be India’s best bet in the competition yet.
“In 12 days, I want the trophy here. Okay?” asked Mumbai City FC head coach Sergio Lobera after his side lifted the ISL League Winners Shield. The Islanders had just wrapped up their league phase of the 2020-21 ISL season but had the daunting knockout stages upon them.
However, twelve days later, they made history by going all the way, becoming only the second Indian club to win both trophies on offer. As a result, the side will participate in the AFC Champions League next season, following FC Goa. It is not surprising that fans are expecting them to present the best challenge from an Indian side yet.
A look back into FC Goa at ACL 2021
The Gaurs were India’s maiden foray in the continental tournament in 2021. Although the excitement was high, they were knocked out in the group stages after picking up three points from six games. It was a decent start and Goa exceeded everyone’s expectations – but it also laid bare the chasm between India and Asia’s best.
ISL, in all its purview, has surely brought international exposure to Indian football like never before. But has it really transformed the fortunes of the sport in the country? Honestly, there is room for argument. The league has been steadily losing its sheen for a while now, and Goa’s Asian sojourn, however encouraging, was also a microcosm of a variety of deficiencies plaguing the same.
For starters, the idea of team-building is largely a myth, with the club offering players contracts lasting no more than a year or two. The Goa which romped to ISL’s League Winners Shield was very different from the Goa which hosted the Champions League.
The departure of some of its key players like Ferran Corominas, Hugo Boumous, Jackichand Singh and Manvir Singh – tore the side apart. They couldn’t also replace them with players of similar caliber, perhaps with the exception of Igor Angulo. The replacements signings were good, but they just weren’t as good as the ones who left.
What can Mumbai City do differently
That’s exactly where Mumbai City holds the upper hand. With the City Football Group having a 65% stake in the club, the Islanders boast a financial backing like no other Indian side right now. Last summer alone, the club signed 17 new players ahead of the 2020-21 season and built a highly talented squad, which brought the ISL title home.
So even if some players were to leave in the summer, they have the might to rake in players of star quality – including those plying their trade in other City Football Group owned clubs on intra-familial deals.
This will not only help in keeping the squad balance intact but also allow their manager Sergio Lobera to exercise the same fiery, attacking brand of football that saw his side romp to ISL and League Winners Shield double.
With 35 goals from 20 league games, Mumbai were the most prolific side last season. Led by Adam Le Fondre (who’s since returned to A-League), they failed to score in all but three games and terrorized defenses with an all-out offensive play which smashed even the meanest sides out of the park.
Goa, meanwhile, exhibited a risky-yet-timid counter-attacking style which yielded just two goals in the Champions League as they failed to break down their oppositions and came undone by some costly individual mistakes.
The Islanders, for all their capability, will be judged against those standards. Given only one Indian team has ever participated in the competition before them, the bar couldn’t have been any lower. In fact, just progressing into the knockout stages of the competition would be deemed a success. And the CFG would be demanding no less from their side either.
We still have a year to go before Mumbai City appear in the competition and a lot can happen until then. But considering the factors both on and off the field right now, they are more than likely to present India’s best challenge on the Asian stage yet.