When Sourav Das had decided to join Mumbai City FC last summer, he knew first team opportunities might be limited competing against four experienced players. Foreigners Paulo Machado and Mohammed Larbi operated as box-to-box midfielders while Raynier Fernandes and Rowllin Borges had already made their way into the India national team.
Half a year after that, on the coldest evening of the season in India's business capital, Das played a major role in the club's potentially season-defining 2-0 win against Bengaluru FC, partnering Rowllin Borges in the midfield with elan.
It was not part of the script though. Carles Cuadrat, coach of the defending champions, had such a strong squad to choose from that he could afford to leave Udanta Singh on the bench. Jorga Costa, on the other hand, was not that lucky, making do with a thin squad after a below par transfer window and piling up of injuries. But, it turned out to be a underdog story of tenacity and diligence trumping experience.
Costa's wards vigorously stuck to their game plan and aided by their incessant pressing, won the midfield war against the deadly duo of Dimas Delgado and Eric Partaalu. Add to that two incisive moves to take advantage of the opponent's individual mistakes and the hosts had a memorable win on their plate.
"We knew Bengaluru can become dangerous if allowed to settle on the ball. And since both of their foreigners are tall, they can be slower on the ground. So my mandate was to press the loose balls on the turf as much as possible and win them for Rowllin," Das revealed.
The plan worked wonders not only because it was perfectly executed, but because Rowllin was also able to create consistent pressure by spraying those balls long into the Bengaluru area. Both the goals came from similar moves, exploiting the large space left between the central defense and the overlapping full-backs.
In the first case, Gurpreet's horrid outing to the edge of the box while dealing with a long ball saw Sougou poke it into the open net, as Juanan and Nishu Kumar could only keep watching. In the second half, Harmanjot Khabra's suicidal judgement to head a long ball back to the goalkeeper saw it being intercepted and duly dispatched into the net by Chermiti.
The goals were also part of a larger trend, especially in the second half, of Bengaluru playing haywire passes under compact pressing. Their fluid football gave them the edge early in the first half, but the fumbling increased as the game wore on.
Manuel Onwu and Ashique Kuruniyan were the two worst performers for the Blues as the striker's inability to create anything meaningful brought back memories of the pre-Miku era in the club, when they had to manage with poor foreign strikers for years. Ashique's case can be judged with more compassion, given he started on the right-wing before shifting to a false nine and then to left-back, but it was not his day at all.
Bengaluru saw a goal wrongly disallowed due to offside, which led to Cuadrat claiming the referees 'don't know football', and it could have well changed the complexion of the game. But what should give Cuadrat nightmares after only the one shot on target is how his team melted down after the break and whether he has enough firepower upfront to sail through the whole season. Bengaluru's season is in sharp contrast to their main contenders ATK and Goa, who are both feasting on the goals scored by foreigners.
Staying on the refereeing, tempers flared thorughout the game between the two sets of players and one particular challenge from Albert Serran on Amine Chermiti where he basically had his studs on the forward's face should have been worthy of a red card.
Mumbai were in desperate need of a lifeline and here they got one, as Costa extended his unbeaten run against Cuadrat to four matches, earning 10 points from four matches. They will face only one top half opponent in the remaining five matches while Odisha will face three, so there's a chance of the City Football Group team getting a peek into life in the last four. There was a shadow today of last year's formula: keep the defence compact and launch quick counter-attacks by launching the balls onto the channels.
"Things have started to fall in place for us," said Das, who also claimed he doesn't feel the pressure. "I have played in the Kolkata derby last year and we were down to 10 men, so I know what pressure can be like. Today I was much more relaxed. It's only five more games and I think we can make it to top four. "
The midfield duo's performance after getting selected ahead of Raynier would go a long way in furthering national team ambitions.
"Delhi is still too far away," he walked away with a grin to aboard the team bus brimming with joy.