To prepare his team for the demanding season ahead, Mumbai City FC coach Des Buckingham should consider playing on loop footage of the two goals they conceded against Nassaji Mazandaran in their AFC Champions League (ACL) opener on Monday.
Playing their continental fixtures at Pune’s Balewadi Stadium since their home ground, the Mumbai Football Arena in Andheri, doesn’t meet AFC standards, the home team was beaten 2-0 by the Iranian Cup winners, who were making their ACL debut.
The scoreline doesn’t tell the entire story though. For one, Nassaji had just two shots on target and both of them ended in the back of Mumbai’s net. Buckingham’s boys, on the other hand, took a total of 13 shots but couldn’t breach the Iranian defence.
FT: MUM 0⃣-2⃣ NSJ
Not our night but a lot of takeaways from the game to get better.
— Mumbai City FC (@MumbaiCityFC) September 18, 2023
With Lallianzuala Chhangte on the right flank, Bipin Singh on left, and playmaker Greg Stewart in the centre, Mumbai were in complete control of proceedings on a rainy night, launching attack after attack right from the start. However, they were denied by the physicality of the Iranian defenders, or were punished for the lack of a proper centre-forward, someone capable of turning half-chances into goals, just like Nassaji did.
In the opening 30 minutes, Chhangte created three chances, and missed one himself when his shot from a tight angle went just wide. Bipin too created a couple of opportunities, sending in threatening crosses, but Mumbai fluffed everything.
Nassaji seemed to be struggling up front and it was clear they were missing a crucial player — Iraqi striker Alaa Abbas couldn’t join the team due to visa trouble.
“He is our main striker,” coach Seyed Mehdi Rahmati had said in the pre-match press conference. “Not granting him a visa is a very big problem for us.”
As it turned out, Nassaji didn’t need him after all. In the 34th minute, making the most of some casual defending, Nassaji skipper Hossein Zamehran won the ball just outside the penalty area. After a beautiful turn, he threaded a ball to Ehsan Hosseini on his left who ran past Mumbai skipper Rahul Bheke with ease, controlled the ball with his left foot, and calmly slotted it past onrushing goalkeeper Phurba Lachenpa.
Frustration for hosts
Mumbai played with renewed gumption after conceding. Their lone striker Jorge Pererya Diaz finally seemed to be combining well with the likes of Lalengmawia Ralte and their new signing Yoell Van Nieff, but it was Chhangte and Bipin who were taking turns creating and missing chances. They almost drew level in first-half injury time when Chhangte lobbed a ball in and Bipin connected well. His powerful volley though, was just off target.
It was more of the same early in the second half. Chhangte completely miscued an open chance created by a crafty Stewart pushback, while Bipin’s attempted cross only found the goalkeeper. It was clear they were getting impatient.
Nassaji were patient and got their reward courtesy a howler by Mumbai’s new signing, left-back Akash Mishra, in the 62nd minute.
All Mishra, who joined from Hyderabad FC, had to do was clear the ball when the team was under pressure. Instead, he tried to go past substitute Farshid Esmaeili, who stole the ball on the edge of the box and centred for Mohammadreza Azadi to drill it past Phurba to thwart Mumbai’s hopes of a good start to their campaign.
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The hosts tried everything to get back into the game but the Nassaji defence just wouldn’t relent.
Mumbai City FC were banking on three points from this home fixture but with this loss, find themselves in dire straits, especially since their next game is away to Uzbekistan’s Navbahor Namangan in October before they play hosts to the Neymar-led Al Hilal in November.
Last year, Mumbai finished second in their ACL group with two wins and a draw from their six matches and were aiming to do one better this time. Without a proper No.9, however, they looked a shadow of the team that went on an 18-match unbeaten run last year to win the League Shield title (topping the ISL group stage).
Coach Buckingham has his task cut out, and though the loss will undoubtedly hurt, it may be an eye-opener just six days before the start of their Indian Super League campaign.