The fateful day was Thursday, 16th February. Camped in the Cooperage's press room, Santosh Kashyap retorted to a question about his side's possible relegation from the top tier of the nation's football pyramid, "No chance. There’s no chance that we will get relegated, I don’t feel so, it’s not going to happen. We will get out soon from the relegation zone. You think about top 3."
Exactly one month later, the picture is in stark contrast to what the former Salgaocar manager envisioned then. 14 games into the I-League campaign and the Mumbaikars are camped firmly at the bottom of the table - also stapled onto their badge is the 'favourites to plummet' tag.
The 5-0 hammering at the hands of DSK Shivajians would have certainly added fuel to the relegation fire for the supporters of Mumbai FC, many of whom witnessed an appalling display at the Shree Chhatrapati Balewadi Sports complex, in Pune. The trend has rarely changed in the last 12 games - a record winless streak for the Mumbai-based side.
So in more ways than one, while the season enters the 'business end', the team from the commercial capital will enter its cyclical 'survival end'. Last season, Mumbai brought together a run that saw them pluck ten points from the final six fixtures and their gaffer will hope his assembled side can do something in similar light with their final four matches.
Because, truth be told, inability to defeat Churchill Brothers will more or less sound the death knell to the Yellow and Blues' nine-year stint in the top division. With 10 points in the kitty and in 10th place, Mumbai are walking a very thin tightrope.
The matter that compounds the issue for Santosh Kashyap's team is that all three teams immediately above them enjoy relegation immunity, viz. DSK Shivajians, Chennai City and Minerva Punjab.
This means that merely finishing above the nearest contenders, positions 7th, 8th or 9th will certainly drop them into the lower tier. Let's not forget, there is a clear gap that has opened up between the team in 6th and last, with as much as six points now to close down for the beleaguered Essel group-owned team.
Kashyap must get his troops to absorb, not merely understand, the situation. Rumours of dressing room bust-ups, openly evident fan displeasure and flaw-laden performances have done the rounds for quite a while, but all the theatre must now be pushed to the backburner.
With only The Red Machines as their nearest relegation candidates, the league's lowest goal scorers have their platter full with deficiencies that must be wrought out in the interval. Elucidated below are three situations that could take place in the next match round which could go a long way in deciding the contestants' fates.
|Mumbai||Churchill Brothers (Home), Chennai City (Home)|
|Churchill Brothers||Mumbai FC (Away), Aizawl (Home)|
S1 - Churchill win.
-> If the resurgent Red Machines, under an equally reinvigorated Derrick Perreira, were to snare all three points in Mumbai then it's as good as curtains for Kashyap's coterie.
A win would push the Valanka Alemao-chaired side to 19 points (currently on 16 points), nine clear of their opponents who then in all probability, will not finish beyond seventh, even if they win their final three games. This assuming that none of the other teams gain any sort of points in their remaining three matches. Mumbai do face Chennai City immediately after the tie against the Goans but all eyes will be on how Churchill fare against Aizawl FC in the Konkan state.
But the writing on the wall certainly won't be in favour of Mumbai FC who could be relegated based on results in round 16.
S2 - Mumbai FC win
-> If the voracious home support do get Mumbai to up the ante and register a victory over Churchill in three weeks time, then the door to survival certainly stays ajar for the Laxmikant Kattimani-captained side. If they do manage to win all four of their remaining games, it will require Churchill Brothers to better the 22 point tally Mumbai will have accumulated. The Red tinted Goan side would certainly get relegated if they accumulate the same number of points, where Mumbai would survive owing to a better head-to-head record.
It must be noted that though this situation takes into account only Mumbai winning all four games, the aftermaths remain constant for all possibilities in the event of a Mumbai FC win - Churchill will need to better Mumbai on the points table for survival.
If Mumbai win just one game (against Churchill) and draw the remaining three, then they must hope Churchill fail to pick up any point in their final three games. This will mean Mumbai will be assured of another season of I-League football owing to a better head-to-head record.
S3 - Match ends in a draw
If both teams draw and share the spoils, then round 16 of the I-League becomes make or break for the men from Mumbai. Assuming Mumbai do win against Chennai City at home, then the focus will shift to what Churchill will do against Aizawl at the Vasco stadium. If the Red Machines lose to Khalid Jamil's men, then round 17 will again offer an opportunity for Kashyap and his crew to rein in the Goans. (Some sub-plots are listed below)
*If Kashyap were to lose to V. Soundararajan and Pereira's side gained a point against Jamil, then Mumbai will be relegated. (Mumbai 11 pts, Churchill 18 pts)
**If Mumbai FC were to draw with their visitors from the Coromandel and Churchill were to lose to Jamil's men, the former Royal Wahingdoh manager will have to pray Churchill pick up a maximum of just one point in their final two games, while Mumbai win both theirs. This will put Mumbai on par or better than the Red Machines on the points table and with a better head-to-head record, the Yellow banners will be waving far into the next season. (Mumbai 18pts, Churchill 18 pts - Churchill relegated, worse off head-to-head).
***If Mumbai draw to Chennai City and Churchill Brothers beat Aizawl FC, Mumbai FC will be relegated. (Mumbai 12 pts, Churchill 20)
****If Mumbai draw to Chennai City and Churchill Brothers draw with Aizawl FC, Kashyap will again need to sing hymns for Churchill to lose six points in their final two games and Mumbai to win their final two. If Churchill then pick up even one point, it would shift them to 19 points on the table, which would mean Mumbai despite winning their last two games would be stuck on 18 points and thus get relegated.
While overturning a six-point advantage over four games is not impossible, it is highly improbable considering the current form of both Mumbai FC and Churchill Brothers. The Mumbaikars are a team that has forgotten how to win while Churchill looks to have finally clicked as a team under a new coach. As such, it is hard to envisage them surrendering such an advantage so close to the business end of the season. Santosh Kashyap, who has been pushed to a corner, needs to respond fiercely if at all he hopes to capitalise on any possible slips from the Goans.