KOCHI: The ambitious project of City Football Group to dominate Indian football for years to come is well and truly underway with Mumbai City FC securing AFC Champions League football by beating ATK Mohun Bagan 2-0 in the final group game of the Indian Super League on Sunday.
After all the heavy investment done by the Group which also owns English Premier League side Manchester City, it all came down to a showdown against Antonio Habas' men to represent India in Asia's biggest club competition next season.
Sergio Lobera's team produced a thoroughly professional display as two first-half goals from Mourtada Fall (7) and Bartholomew Ogbeche (39) helped them with the ISL shield.
For the second straight season, Habas will have to try to secure an AFC Cup spot for next season by winning the ISL cup.
As for Lobera, this would feel sweet after his work at FC Goa was somewhat left unfinished after the two parted ways towards the end of the season. While the Gaurs went onto become the first Indian club to secure Champions League football largely due to Lobera, the Spaniard was left to search for a new club.
Mumbai put their faith in him and he didn't disappoint as the Islanders showed that they are the best team in the league this season.
This was the first time in ISL history that the final league game of the season came with such high stakes as it was a virtual final between two teams who have been in a league of their own. There was little separating the two sides and it all came down to Mumbai finding a way to win while Bagan couldn't come up with the goods when it mattered the most.
Even though Lobera had suggested prior to the game that the Islanders would stick to their philosophy of playing possession-based football, they took a pragmatic approach against the Kolkata outfit. They didn't dominate possession or the chances created charts but were clinical on set-pieces which eventually proved to be the deciding factor.
Lobera's trusted midfield maestro Ahmed Jahouh floated in a free-kick towards the far post and it was headed into the net by Fall as the Bagan backline made the mistake of not picking him up. Mumbai who was missing the likes of Hugo Boumous and Rowllin Borges didn't attempt to dominate Bagan knowing well that the likes of Roy Krishna, David Williams and Marcelinho can hurt them on the break.
Bagan then suffered a major blow when their captain Sandesh Jhingan walked off injured in the 19th minute as Habas had to shuffle up his defence.
Mumbai got another free-kick as half-time was approaching and Hernan Santana unleashed a stunning hit with the ball hitting the post and coming back. Ogbeche was the quickest to react as he headed the ball in. The second half was all about game management for Lobera's side and barring an effort from Prabir Das hitting the crossbar and Williams shooting straight at Amrinder Singh, Bagan didn't threaten Mumbai enough.
While Bagan wasn't at the races on Sunday, this could be a rivalry for years to come and the focus now shifts to the play-offs with Mumbai taking on FC Goa while NorthEast United set to face Bagan.