It is arguably the most important match in Indian club football.
Yet, there's very little fanfare surrounding the buildup to Mumbai City FC taking on Jamshedpur FC on Tuesday, April 4, in a one-off playoff to decide who will represent India in the 2023-24 AFC Champions League group stage.
Perhaps it's the timing of the game, coming on the back of the Indian Super League season and right before the Super Cup begins. Perhaps it's the location, with Manjeri, Kerala a neutral venue offering no advantage to either team. Perhaps it's the nature of the playoff - a single game as opposed to a two-legged affair that points to it being treated like an obligation.
And yet, for both teams, it's a just reward for league-winning campaigns - and a shot at the pinnacle of club football in Asia.
Why was a playoff needed in the first place?
The AFC Champions League has long been a messy calendar, catering to multiple zones of west, east, south-east and central Asia and their idiosyncrasies. To bring it in line with a 'traditional' footballing calendar and to compensate for delays caused due to Covid, a single edition of the AFC Champions League was dismissed to accommodate the 2023-24 AFC Champions League taking place much like their European counterparts, with the final in May and the group stages during the regular season.
- Mumbai City FC (@MumbaiCityFC) April 3, 2023
The consequence was that Jamshedpur FC, who won the 2021-22 ISL league shield in March 2022 could not feature in the Champions League group stage that took place in May 2022 - because it was technically the 2020-21 season - which meant Mumbai City FC took part and went on to create history.
With Mumbai City winning the 2022-23 ISL League Shield, they had just as much a claim to feature in the 2023-24 AFC Champions League. Ergo, playoff.
How did both teams get here?
Mumbai City come to this game on the back of a record-breaking season, where they eclipsed the points total (46), goals scored (54) and the number of unbeaten games (18) as they romped to the title. However, things didn't go to plan in the ISL playoffs, where they lost out to Bengaluru FC on penalties.
Jamshedpur FC's enthralling title-winning season under Owen Coyle became a distant memory once Aidy Boothroyd took over, with the defending champions finishing second-from-bottom with 19 points from 20 games. They did finish the season on a high though, unbeaten in their last four games while winning three of them.
What happened the last time they met?
You would be forgiven for thinking Mumbai steamrollered through Jamshedpur like they had every other team in the league, but the truth is Boothroyd's side caused the title-winners plenty of problems. The first game at the Mumbai Football Arena ended in a tight, evenly contested 1-1 draw while the reverse fixture saw Jamshedpur lead for much of the game before a couple of fortuitous goals in the last ten minutes saw Des Buckingham's side grab a 2-1 win.
How will this game to play out?
On paper, Mumbai are the clear favourites for this game - they have an edge in quality all over the park, a settled lineup with every one of their galaxy of stars available. However, the lack of match-sharpness cost them dearly in their ISL semifinal playoff against Bengaluru FC, with the likes of Greg Stewart and co. quite flat in the first leg. Given the long break in play, albeit with five of their players featuring for India recently, we cannot expect a pitch-perfect performance.
Yet, the same issues could plague Jamshedpur, but they are not as dependent on being fluid in the middle of the park. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas caused Mumbai his fair share of problems in the ISL season and could prove pivotal once more. A direct style of football has caused Mumbai issues defensively, and with the pressure of a one-legged playoff, things could conceivably go Jamshedpur's way.
What the managers said
Des Buckingham, head coach, Mumbai City FC: "Jamshedpur are a good team - they have shown it throughout the year and against us twice. They have caused us problems because they are a good team and have good individuals and a good coach. We have to be on top of our game, we need to do everything we can to do what we did in the league stage, which was to come away with two results.
The preparations have been as good as they can be. We shuffled a few things after the playoff and five players have gone to the national team which is a wonderful achievement. With the exception of those five, everyone is back in training and everybody is available."
�� Our Gaffer shares his thoughts on the crucial qualifying game against Mumbai City FC and more in our pre-match interview ahead of the Hero Club Playoffs ⚽️�� #JamKeKhelo #JFCMCFC @TheOfficialSBI pic.twitter.com/GMyi8PQ9aJ
- Jamshedpur FC (@JamshedpurFC) April 3, 2023
Aidy Boothroyd, head coach, Jamshedpur FC: "We feel there's a bit of unfinished business with Mumbai because we thought we played really well at their place and came away with a draw. In our game at home, we lost in the dying minutes to a mishit cross, so we felt a bit aggrieved about that, but that's football, that's what happens.
"It'll be a tough game because they're a very good team - League Shield champions - but we're really looking forward to the game. We hit a really good patch of form for the last half of the season in the ISL. We want to see if we can keep that momentum and keep that play going into the next coming games, starting with Mumbai."
Jamshedpur FC vs Mumbai City FC will take place on April 4, 8:30 pm and will be broadcast on the Sony Sports Network and live-streamed on FanCode.