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Laser-focused Buckingham to keep improving Mumbai City ahead of ATK Mohun Bagan test

Des Buckingham has moulded his Mumbai City side into an unstoppable outfit. Divyakant Solanki/Focus Sports/ ISL

It's not often that a 2-2 draw gets called the best game of the season, or even all-time. Yet that's what Mumbai City vs ATK Mohun Bagan offered in early November last year.

The two teams have had vastly differing fortunes since, with Mumbai going on a record-breaking spree of eight wins, scoring 28 goals along the way, while ATKMB have blown hot and cold - five wins (all by a single-goal margin), two losses (one of which was against NorthEast United) and a goalless draw.

The result is a ten-point gap between the two sides as they battle at the Salt Lake stadium. Lose, and Juan Ferrando's men can kiss goodbye whatever faint hopes they had of a league shield. Win, and they'd still be seven points behind the all-conquering Mumbai City.

Des Buckingham's side last faced a title challenger in their previous game... and unleashed a wave of destruction on Kerala Blasters in a 4-0 win. With all the plaudits coming their way, it's only natural to ease off the pedal, right?

Not so, says Buckingham in a conversation with ESPN, "[The mood] is one of focus and it's one of professionalism. The players don't get carried away with the result; they don't get carried away with the performances. They're aware of what we've done well, and they're very aware of what we need to continue working on, to keep getting better."

'Keep getting better' - if there ever was a phrase to strike fear into the hearts of the chasing pack, here it is. Buckingham has fashioned a side that has yet to lose a game this season - how does it get better? The 37-year-old laughs and doesn't get drawn into the specifics of where his team can improve, but notes that they continue to work on every individual in the squad - "whether you're older, whether you're Indian, whether you're younger or you're foreign, they still get the same attention".

That laser-sharp focus on improvement and the patience to keep pursuing the same City Football Group style of play after middling results last season, has seen Mumbai top the table - dealing with whatever different challenges that the opposition has brought.

But ATK Mohun Bagan bring a very different challenge than their previous encounter - the Kolkata giants have signed Puitea and Fede Gallego to reinforce their midfield, after Joni Kauko's injury caused them plenty of issues.

However, as Buckingham notes, keeping a group together is paramount to improving - whether it be in defence or attack. Mumbai have the benefit of a consistent lineup, while Ferrando is still revamping what his best lineup is; fitting Gallego and Puitea into the ATKMB puzzle will take time.

ATK Mohun Bagan have evolved into a distinctly un-Ferrando side of late. Gone is the focus on possession, as ATKMB needed only 44% of the ball in their 2-1 win over Goa. Only NorthEast, Jamshedpur and Bengaluru FC have ceded the possession battle to Ferrando's side, hardly the toughest of opponents.

When Mumbai come to town, Ferrando has the difficult choice of attempting to take the game to his opponents or sitting back and defending. Ivan Vukomanovic attempted the former and saw his Kerala Blasters side absolutely obliterated, with Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Bipin Singh, Greg Stewart and Ahmed Jahouh easily beating the Blasters' press and thriving in the Mumbai Football Arena.

Sitting back might not work for ATKMB either, as Mumbai have the firepower to beat a low block. ATKMB do have the advantage of having a mid-season break, their last game happening on December 28. Yet, Mumbai's ability to control the tempo of the game and unleash a relentless barrage of attacks at a moment's notice might see the fresher side chasing shadows.

With fifteen months of training and improvement under his belt, Buckingham has ironed out most of Mumbai's flaws from last year. A backline that conceded 31 goals last season has limited itself to 13 goals this year, despite Mumbai's penchant for front-foot, attacking football. Phurba Lachenpa, is far more assured in goal, with five clean sheets the joint-top alongside Vishal Kaith in the ATKMB goal.

All of this is to say that it's hard to look past Mumbai winning this game - even a draw would represent a good return for ATKMB, although it would all but rule them out of the title race.

Win, and Mumbai City will be thirteen clear of ATKMB and have a four point lead at the top with six games to go. The league shield will be in their hands, a return to the AFC Champions League in their hands. And yet, the one thing to be sure of is Buckingham and his charges will return to training in their same laser-focused mood - not with their eye on the prize, but rather the process.