Ugly, but effective Mumbai keep Bagan at bay

Mumbai played near-perfect football considering the conditions at the drizzle-laden Rabindra Sarobar Stadium pitch. AIFF Media

Santosh Kashyap is one of the most likable characters in Indian football. Armed with a ready smile and wit whenever he speaks, he has carved a niche for himself as a miracle worker with teams on shoestring budgets - the best example coming with the now-defunct senior team of Royal Wahingdoh, Shillong, whom he took to dizzying heights in 2014-15, before settling for third place behind Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC.

Bagan aren't unfamiliar with Kashyap either, having brought him on board in 2012 at a time when the Kolkata giants were rebuilding their squad. The romance was a short-lived one, though.

On Wednesday, Kashyap returned to Bagan but this time with Mumbai FC, a team that had begun the 2017 season with successive wins, but had fallen away abjectly since. Six consecutive defeats were stemmed by three drawn matches, but there were no goals coming for the team, part of it down to the misfortune of hitting the woodwork or having goals ruled out for offside.

On a drizzle-laden Rabindra Sarobar Stadium pitch, Mumbai gave Mohun Bagan a fight, and put a lot of the disturbances reported from the squad behind them. But for a little blip in defence inside the first 12 minutes, and then again in the last ten, they arguably played the perfect football for the conditions - ugly but effective.

Bagan didn't help their own cause in what was arguably a must-win match for them. Going into the game, they trailed Aizawl FC by eight points, but with three matches in hand. The defensive errors crept in yet again, with both wing-backs Pritam Kotal and Subhasish Bose at fault for allowing Mumbai to get in behind them and get the supply going for the two strikes.

That Bagan came away with a point, was thanks to the tireless Balwant Singh, and the service from Sony Norde. Coach Sanjoy Sen is still coming to terms with his best combination, and playing two defensive midfielders as he did on Wednesday is also likely to be inadequate unless centre-backs Eduardo Ferreira and Anas Edathodika develop a greater understanding.

Mumbai deserve plenty of credit, though. Ever since they started losing, beginning with a 3-0 defeat at Bengaluru FC in January, there have been just negative stories emanating from the camp, talking of uncertainty over Kashyap's future and supposed differences of opinion between him and several senior players.

The only constant through these turbulent times has been Trinidad and Tobago international Densill Theobald, as he was the only foreign player other than Afghan defender Djelaluddin Sharityar to regularly start for Kashyap.

Late in the game, as Theobald was looking to run towards the right channel with Mumbai in possession in midfield and the team still 2-1 ahead with some minutes left, he rebuked the midfielder who gave him a precise pass to feet that he failed to carry past the Bagan midfield.

Theobald indicated that he ideally wanted the ball ahead of him, perhaps so he could run some time off the clock by taking it to the corner and having some of the opposition players tire themselves out by chasing him.

Indeed, a win here would have not just meant a massive scalp for Mumbai, but also some relief for coach Kashyap and a team that is staring at the prospect of their first relegation since coming to the I-League in 2008-09.

As a neutral, though, this was the perfect result, which keeps all options open at both the top and bottom of the league, giving all 10 teams something to keep fighting and scrapping for, just the way the away team did on Wednesday.

And that is something Santosh Kashyap would never disapprove of.