ISL 2022-23: Mumbai City off to promised land as Buckingham-ball leaves Blasters in tatters

Mumbai City FC fans unfurl a banner saying 'Lead us Des' during their 4-0 win over Kerala Blasters. Emmanual Yogini/Focus Sports/ ISL

It's somewhere in the mid-thirty minutes mark of the high-stakes match between Indian Super League league leaders Mumbai City and the third-placed Kerala Blasters. Ahmed Jahouh strolls around inside his own third, and under no pressure smashes an outside-of-the-boot ball down the inside right channel. Jorge Pereyra Diaz, an ex-Blaster of course, gets beaten to it by Harmanjot Khabra. The ball bounces out to an empty area just in front of the Blasters' third. Jeakson Singh and Apuia race to the ball... before Apuia shrugs off the much bigger Jeakson, sits him down and calmly spins back to take control of the ball.

In that five-second microcosm, the story of the match was told: a battle of would-be equals turned into an evisceration as Goliath stamped out David before he could even get his sling out. At the time Apuia was toying with Jeakson, the score had already read 4-0 for a good ten-plus minutes.

The Blasters were bullied, outplayed, outthought and outfought in the Mumbai Football Arena on Sunday. Ivan Vukomanovic's side had come into the game on the back of a run of seven wins and a draw in their last eight matches since a 2-0 loss to these same men in sky blue. They had set-up in that trademark 4-2-2-2, ready to press their opponents into submission.

Mumbai City, though, were ready for them.

What do you press when the ball doesn't touch the middle of the field? Sample the first three goals Mumbai scored on the night.

  • Royston Griffiths, at right centre back, looks up and smashes a deep cross-field out wide to Bipin Singh. Bipin runs at a rusty Khabra, before pausing and playing a sensational one-two with Greg Stewart. This allows him to race into the box and smash one low and hard at the Blasters' goal. Prabhsukhan Gill can't handle it, the ball pops out and Diaz is there ahead of another rusty Blaster, Victor Mongil, and it's an easy tap-in.

  • Griffiths again, this time down a superb ball down the line. Lallianzuala Chhangte traps it and then sizes up Jessel Carneiro. The Blasters' captain gives him enough time, and space, to take a sip of tea... which he takes to measure up the situation and curl in a beautiful ball into the centre of the six-yard box. Stewart ghosts in behind Khabra and Hormipam Ruivah and nods it home easily as Gill comes - and flaps and connects with naught but air.

  • Mehtab Singh, the left centre-back this time, fizzes a hard ball just over the heads in midfield and into the inside-right channel for Diaz to chase. Which he does, before pulling it back to Bipin. Khabra gives him enough space to build a Mumbai-sized 3BHK and Bipin calmly bends one into the top far corner.

The goals exploited the obvious weaknesses in the Blasters' defence -- Khabra playing his first game in eight and Mongil starting for the first time this season -- and took the obvious strength of the Blasters' front-foot press completely out of the equation. Without their usual intensity, the Blasters were no match.

By the time the third went in, it was all over. A quarter of an hour into the game, and it was decided. Mumbai's fourth was just them showing off -- Jahouh controlling a clearance with a nifty backheel that looped over Jeakson's head and went straight to Stewart, Stewart completing the ridiculous one-two with a neat cushioned header, Jahouh pinging in one down the inside left channel, Diaz bullying Mongil en-route slapping it into the goal.

By the end of the half, Mumbai could as well have stopped playing. The Blasters, shocked and awed, didn't get close to troubling Phurba Lachenpa in the Mumbai goal. The second half was a mere formality. After the game, Vukomanovic, bemoaned the fact that his team was not ready from minute one, how they only started playing after they'd already gone 4-0 down. Des Buckingham, meanwhile, said the first 25 minutes was some of the best football he'd seen his side play -- there was no false humility but no great bravado either... his side had done all the talking for him on the pitch.

Mumbai are now on an 8-game winning run (an ISL record), they are yet to be beaten in 13 games. They have scored 40 goals already, that's already one more than they had scored in 23 games last season. The way they dismissed one of their closest rivals suggests an unprecedented unbeaten season is very much on the cards.