Defending Champions Mumbai City has a task cut out for Des Buckingham
Reigning Indian Super League champions Mumbai City will have a mountain to climb this season as the Islanders achieved everything possible last season by winning the League Winners’ Shield and the eventual ISL trophy as well.
Under the tutelage of Sergio Lobera, Mumbai played an attractive blend of football with consistency enjoying the best season in their club history but the former Goa manager has decided to move on now to take coaching roles in Europe.
While their fans will be optimistic about the Islanders’ chances of repeating the same this season, quite a few things have changed since Lobera’s exit. Many star players have moved on like Adam Le Fondre, Hugo Boumous, Hernan Santana, Bartholomew Ogbeche, and Amrinder Singh. All of them played crucial roles in the title-winning season and their experience and presence will be dearly missed in the Mumbai City setup.
A look at last season’s performance
Mumbai City had a fantastic 2020-21 ISL campaign as they topped the league phase qualifying for the AFC Asian Champions League becoming only the second team from India to earn a direct entry in the group stage.
Lobera’s men won 12 games out of 20 matches and scored 35 goals, the highest in the league phase. Their defense was equally exemplary, conceding 18 goals, only more than ATK Mohun Bagan whom they eventually beat in the season finale.
New Signings ahead of the 2021-22 ISL season
The Islanders tried their best to hold onto the core from last season but few in-form foreigners have left the club. New manager Des Buckingham has got equally good replacements in place, and his trump card is likely to be the former Goa striker Igor Angulo. The 37-year-old Spaniard won the Golden Boot last season and will be looking to replicate that form for the Islanders.
The English manager has also signed former Odisha midfielder Bradden Inman to fill the AFC slot. Inman is known for his versatility and can be equally potent in both midfield and attack.
The Brazilian duo of Cassinho and Ygor Catatau are new names in the Islanders’ roster. Both players have credentials to succeed in India and will be looking to do justice to their reputation. Cassinho is an attacking midfielder by trade, but can also be deployed on both flanks. On the other hand, Catatau is a textbook No.9 who has featured in the Brazilian lower leagues for most of his career.
Among the domestic acquisitions, the homecoming of Rahul Bheke will add both solidity and versatility to the backline with the promising Huidrom Naocha Singh signing from Gokulam Kerala after their I-League triumph last season. Mohammad Nawaz was also signed after the young goalkeeper’s contract ended with Goa and will have the big task of filling in the shoes of the former skipper Amrinder Singh.
However, the biggest domestic acquisition is undoubtedly Lalengmawia Ralte, affectionately called Apuia by his teammates. The young prodigy was on the wish list of almost every ISL club, but Mumbai City was the fastest to act and paid a hefty record-breaking transfer fee to secure the services of the former NorthEast United midfielder.
Predicted Starting Lineup
Mohammad Nawaz; Amey Ranawade, Mourtada Fall, Rahul Bheke, Vignesh D; Apuia, Rowlin Borges, Ahmed Jahouh; Cassinho, Igor Angulo, Bipin Singh.
A strong core packed with ISL champions from last season is undoubtedly Mumbai’s biggest strength. Players like Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh, and Mandar Rao Dessai have been with each other since their Goa days and their understanding is reflected through their intricate passing and positioning.
The already established team combination is bound to give Buckingham a head start with the addition of a proven goal-machine like Angulo increasing the Islanders’ chances of winning the title again.
The lack of balance in their team composition is pretty evident in the Mumbai roster. Fall is their only foreign option in defense as Buckingham did not get a like-for-like replacement for the outgoing Hernan Santana.
Even among the Indian defenders, Rahul Bheke is the only experienced player with the likes of Mehtab Singh and Mohammad Rakip massively inexperienced and can be exposed at this level irrespective of their talent.
In addition to that, Lobera’s departure at the eleventh hour has pegged Mumbai City back even before the start of the season. Appointed only in October, Buckingham did not have the opportunity to choose his preferred players in addition to his lack of experience as a head coach a worrying factor.
After last season’s heroics, the Mumbai City fans will be expecting to be in the mix again for the title. But, the Islanders have a predominantly new setup under a new manager with some old players forming the core.
The dreams of two consecutive titles might be a tad over-optimistic but a place around the top four will be considered a decent season for the defending champions.