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Dogged, lucky, ugly - Mumbai City make history the hard way

Mumbai City FC celebrate their historic victory over Air Force Club of Iraq in the AFC Champions League. Mumbai City FC

The stage? The AFC Champions League. The opponents? Iraqi giants, Al Quwa Al Jawiya (Air Force Club). You? Coach of the team that everyone is sure will be cannon fodder for the other three in the group. The scene? The ball is at your goalkeeper's feet, three minutes into the game. Al Quwa's attackers are all over your defensive third. What do you ask your goalkeeper to do?

If you, as most people would, answered 'thump it into the stratosphere', you're not Des Buckingham, head coach of ACL Group B underdogs, Mumbai City.

From that third minute to halfway in the fourth, Mumbai played 30 passes. Short, long, short, short. Every single player got a touch. Ninety seconds, thirty passes, the move only ended by a loose touch that resulted in an inadvertent handball just past the centre circle.

In Manchester, on screens in the offices of the City Football Group, they would have been seeing this, and thinking... "Ah, our football." This - not just the mere act of passing - but the insistence on passing in the face of incessant pressure, the involvement of everyone in the passing move, this is the football of Begiristain and Guardiola, the football the CFG have worked so hard in associating with their brand. Pass, pass, pass. Repeat. Pass, pass, pass.

Except, as Buckingham reminded us before the first match of Mumbai's ACL campaign, this isn't the UEFA Champions League, and they ain't Manchester City.

Mumbai may have won this football match, but it wasn't because of their passing patterns or their complete control of the ball or an absurd number of chances created. It really wasn't pretty.

By now you would have read the simple facts. Al Quwa Al Jawiya 1 - 2 Mumbai City. Hammadi Ahmed scored for the Iraqi side in the 59th minute. Diego Mauricio equalised with a 70th minute penalty. Rahul Bheke scored the winner five minutes later.

If you dug a little deeper you would have seen the stats, and one in particular would have stood out: Al Quwa Al Jawiya had 19 shots on goal. Mumbai had five. The match, for a long while, was as one-sided as those numbers, 19 and five, suggest.

Many of those Iraqi shots came via defensive errors, self-inflicted as much as caused by the opponent's intense high-press. Mumbai rode their luck here. Phurba Lachenpa, for instance, was fortunate not to concede a penalty in the ninth minute after cleaning out Alaa Abbas as he snatched onto a terrible back-pass and bore down on goal. In other instances, Al Quwa forwards shot haphazardly, or found all six feet five inches of Mourtada Fall in their way.

Fall put in, as the cliche goes, a captain's performance. He was everywhere, sliding into (and winning) no hope tackles, dominating aerial duels, dousing fires across the defensive third. He was arguably the only reason the score remained 0-0 at halftime.

When Ahmed scored, though, it looked for a while like it was all over. Al Quwa had started the second half with intent. Their pressing intensity had been ratcheted up, their passing had new-found incision, their shooting more bite. The goal had been coming a long time before it actually arrived.

Then, out of nowhere, five minutes of manna for Mumbai.

Bipin Singh intercepted a loose pass from Al Quwa's right back, Ali Kadham, high up the pitch, heading it onto Mauricio. He bullied past Kadham, who in turn stuck out a leg and conceded a rather silly penalty. Mauricio calmly slammed it straight down the middle.

Then, a delightful Ahmed Jahouh corner found an utterly unmarked Bheke in the six-yard box. That's not a position he often misses from. A well-timed leap, a powerful header, ball nestling in the far bottom corner. Clinical.

The last fifteen minutes was a study in defence vs attack. Desperate tackles, last-ditch defending, bodies being thrown in the way of shots, Mumbai dug deep to hold Al Quwa at bay.

Now, there were - apart from the goals themselves - glimpses of attacking promise from Mumbai, of course. Mauricio and Vikram Pratap Singh spurned very presentable chances in the first half. Bradden Inman's direct running from deep caused problems, as did Lalianzuala Chhangte's pace further up. Some of Jahouh's passing was *chef's kiss*. Usually, though, when the underdog goes up against the big guns in the biggest competitions, that's all you get. Glimpses, "Ooo, nice pass", "Oh, if only he had taken that chance." Usually. Not on Monday, though.

Yeah, it wasn't pretty. But you know, what? That's okay.

This result guarantees that no matter what else happens, Mumbai City will return from their first Champions League campaign with more than just hearts won. It's an incredible result for the nation they represent. They are the first ever Indian club to win a match in the ACL proper. Bheke, Mumbai born and bred, is the first Indian to ever score in it. These are big, proper, firsts and you don't achieve those without a little bit of grinding, a little bit of luck, a little bit of ugliness. It was hard, nerve-wracking, not very good for the supporter's hearts. That's how it's supposed to be. History doesn't just happen, you have to fight to make it.

There are four more matches to go in the group stages, and the phrase 'anything can happen' now has a certain weight to it. Mumbai are currently second in group B. Only the ten group winners and the six best runners-up across East and West make it to the knockouts, but... anything can happen.

For now, though, Al Quwa Al Jawiya 1 - 2 Mumbai City.

If you are a fan of Indian football, stare at that for a bit. Let it sink in. Small steps and giant leaps and what not, eh?