Mumbai City FC’s 2023/24 season review!

Mumbai City FC, in recent years, has been setting the standards in domestic Indian football, and the 2023-24 Season was no different. The Islanders had a storied year and kept up the tradition of being one of the foremost teams in the country. The Rahul Bheke-led side signed off on the year with a glorious performance that saw them clinch the ISL Cup against Mohun Bagan SG at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata while also registering their highest ever points tally in the ISL League – finishing with 47 points for the second spot.

The season prior saw Des Buckingham lead the team to glory with very important achievements in the history of the club and Indian football. The 2023-24 season kicked off with the Durand Cup, where the Islanders were out of the blocks at good speed, winning their first three games at a canter, before Mohun Bagan SG spoilt the party.

Once that was out of the way, it was time for the big one – the Islanders were back in the Asia’s biggest club competition, the AFC Champions League, and the task on hand was quite unenviable. Mumbai City FC were pitted against the mighty Al-Hilal (Saudi Arabia), Navbahor (Uzbekistan) and Nassaji Mazandaran (Iran) in Group D in the group stages of the competition. The results didn’t go the way the Islanders would have wanted as they were handed six losses. However, the experience of playing against some of the best teams in Asia meant that the Islanders walked away with plenty of learnings for the domestic season.

Buckingham and company were sure the ride was not going to be easy, but with the likes of Jorge Pereyra Díaz, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Tiri – to name a few – all standing tall whenever the occasion demanded, the squad was confident of making this an enjoyable journey.

It is always tough to defend a title. Mumbai City FC’s defence of the ISL League Winners’ Shield began with a win against NorthEast United before well-fought games against Odisha FC, Kerala Blasters and Hyderabad FC. The Islanders, who won two of the four and drew the other two, were at this time also going through the gruelling AFC Champions League games, which were undoubtedly a learning experience. It showed how well the team stuck together through the tough times.

From the get go, the Islanders showed that there was enough potential and an excellent spirit within the squad, one that did not compromise on its attacking approach and principles. The Islanders dug deep whenever needed, especially against the newly promoted Punjab FC, Bengaluru FC and FC Goa, with the latter holding Mumbai to a draw. As the season ebbed and flowed, the Islanders were yet to lose in the ISL, and when they clicked, they were unstoppable.

The game after that, against FC Goa, was a monumental moment for the club as Petr Kratky joined the team for his first ever assignment as Head Coach. From here on in the team, nothing short of a family by itself, kicked off a memorable second half of the season.

Kratky, who has been part of the City Football Group – he had been at Melbourne City FC – started off with a couple of goalless draws against FC Goa and East Bengal, before facing one of his toughest evenings against Mohun Bagan SG. A flurry of red cards on both sides thanks to a few on-field squabbles threatened to rock the boat, but Bheke and company held on for a crucial 2-1 win at the Mumbai Football Arena. It was an evening at Andheri that is unlikely to be repeated in the near future as the two sides saw multiple red cards.

That was followed up by the unfortunate first defeat at Kerala, before normalcy returned against Chennaiyin FC with a 3-0 home win.

Once again, the Islanders would showcase the fact that they are a closely knit and well-oiled unit as Kratky and company put that behind and marched on towards the eastern part of India, where in Bhubaneshwar, they would play the Kalinga Super Cup. The Islanders displayed grit and flair in various moments as they defeated Chennaiyin FC, Punjab FC and Gokulam Kerala with ease in the group stage, before a fiery semi-final against Odisha stopped the Islanders.

The defeat hurt, but Kratky’s side had to move on and continue to trust and follow their process and train hard, all the while supporting each other. Kratky would not have it any other way, and he proceeded to set-up the playing XI with his own vision, which opened a few doors for the Indian players on the team.

Right after the Kalinga Super Cup, Khalid Jamil snatched three points from the Islanders in Andheri, after which the team turned a corner and went on a 9-game unbeaten streak, right up until the final day of the league stage.

None of East Bengal, Bengaluru, Punjab, NorthEast United, Hyderabad and Odisha were able to stop the juggernaut. Mumbai City FC side picked up points and momentum and were sprinting towards the top of the points table. Chhangte and Vikram Partap Singh were scoring and assisting at will, while the likes of Jayesh Rane and Bipin Singh were making very telling contributions whenever called upon. With Díaz out injured for a while, the focus shifted on the Indian attackers who stepped up when the time came. Meanwhile on defence, Bheke, Tiri, Mehtab Singh, Akash Mishra and Valpuia had formed a nice partnership with Phurba Lachenpa who was picking up clean sheets at will. With that sorted, Alberto Noguera and Apuia were free to pull the strings of the team from the heart of the midfield. The Islanders were becoming a menacing proposition yet again for opposition teams.

By the time the season ended, Mumbai City FC had conceded a mere 22 goals in total, and only three from set-plays. In the league stage, the Islanders had the best goal difference as well with a +23 count, and Phurba Lachenpa’s nine clean sheets earned him The Golden Glove.

It was by no means an easy phase for the team, who had just about settled into the new coach’s ways of working and put some sour moments behind them, only to go through the gears swiftly on the home stretch. Against Odisha, in front of their own fans in the Mumbai Football Arena, the Islanders registered their highest ever points tally in a season when they hit 47.

By now Díaz was back, and the Islanders were well and truly on the way to retaining the ISL Shield, or so it seemed. Unfortunately, Bagan came in the way on April 15th when they handed Mumbai City FC a 2-1 defeat to clinch the Shield. Heartbroken, the Islanders returned to base and turned up the ante in training for the semi-finals, where they would face yet another old foe in FC Goa.

A riveting first leg at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Goa saw Chhangte and Vikram lead the fight back in stoppage time in the second half, as they scored 3 goals in the last six minutes and swept away Goa’s 2-0 lead in a matter of minutes. It was the greatest comeback in the history of the club. What made it sweeter was that Kratky’s side had only one non-Indian footballer on the pitch at full-time. The Gaurs were caught unaware had no idea about what hit them in those six minutes in Goa. Nor would they be able to find the key to unlock the doors to the final in the second leg, as Mumbai City FC put in a dominant and assured performance on their home turf.

A 5-2 win on aggregate in the semi-final saw Mumbai City FC set up a date with Mohun Bagan SG, once again in Kolkata at the iconic Salt Lake Stadium. Here, Kratky’s Mumbai was relentless in attack and defence, and much like he wanted from the first day, the processes were falling into place. They were reaping the rewards of the hard yards put in at the base in Navi Mumbai.

On the final day of the season, plenty of that relentless nature of Mumbai City FC’s team was on display but so was the desire, hunger and grit to fight back when they were a goal down. The Islanders responded and how. Three goals in the second half silenced the Kolkata crowd and gave an authoritative response to the critics.

In his first assignment as Head coach Kratky had overseen 23 games, winning 16 and drawing three. 23 of 37 – over 62% – of the club’s goals in the ISL were scored by Indians. Chhangte was the joint top scorer for the team with 10 goals alongside Díaz, and Vikram and Bipin chipped in with eight and four goals, respectively. Chhangte also had the highest number of assists for his side with six to his name, while Jayesh Rane and Vikram added four each. Moreover, to add cherry on the top, Vikram received the ISL Emerging Player of the Year award for his impressive campaign.

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