Matchday 5 of AFC Champions League saw Mumbai City FC facing Nassaji Mazandaran at Azadi Stadium, Tehran, where the Islanders faced a tough challenge under Interim Coach Anthony Fernandes.
The all-Indian lineup, structured in a 5-4-1 formation, featured Phurba Lachenpa guarding the goal, a 5 man defensive line of Halen Nongtdu, Captain Rahul Bheke, Akash Mishra, Valpuia, along with Vikram Singh playing a defensive role at right back. The midfield comprised Apuia Ralte, Vinit Rai, with Chhangte and Bipin on the wings, while Gurkirat Singh led the attack.
The early minutes witnessed Nassaji's M. Seifi testing Lachenpa from a corner, but the goalkeeper managed to gather the ball just in time after some back and forth in box. This was followed by another Nassaji attack with a long ball over the Mumbai defence line for Mohammed Reza Azadi, however, Valpuia's crucial tackle right on the edge of the box denied Azadi a clear goal-scoring opportunity, and Mumbai successfully thwarted the subsequent corner.
However, Nassaji broke the deadlock in the 14th minute when Amir Janmaleki's long ball found Azadi, who navigated past Mumbai's defence and unleashed a powerful shot from a tight angle, beating Lachenpa to secure a 1-0 lead.
Despite trailing, Mumbai showed glimpses of attacking intent. Vinit Rai's interception in midfield initiated a promising move, with Bipin delivering a cross into the box, just eluding Gurkirat Singh as the keeper collected the ball.
However, things turned for worse for Mumbai as a moment of miscommunication in Mumbai's defence led to an unfortunate own goal by Halen Nongtdu, doubling Nassaji's lead. The Indian side faced further setbacks when Halen received a booking for a foul on Azadi on a free run in a counter attacking move.
At the other end, Mumbai went close again when Gurkirat chased and pressed Nassaji defence and subsequently winning the ball off Nassaji goalkeeper but with his back facing the goal Gurkirat chose to pass the ball for bipin at the edge of the box. However the latter’s curling effort went inches over the bar.
The first half concluded with Nassaji coming close to extending their lead, narrowly missing a header from a well-delivered cross.
The second half witnessed a determined Mumbai side seeking a comeback. An early corner provided an opportunity for Rahul Bheke, whose header narrowly missed the target. Bipin earned another corner, but Nassaji's defense remained resolute.
In the 57th minute, Azadi had a chance to add to Nassaji's lead with a header off Farshid Esmaeili's freekick, but the attempt went wide.
Around the hour mark, Mumbai introduced fresh legs, bringing in Sanjeev Stalin and Ayush Chhikara for Halen Nongtdu and Gurkirat Singh, respectively.
A big moment of the game occurred in the 66th minute when Amir Janmaleki's rash foul on Sanjiv Stalin prompted a VAR review, resulting in referee overturning his initial yellow card to a direct red card reducing the host to 10 men.
Mumbai looked to capitalize on the numerical advantage, dominating possession and winning back-to-back corners. However, Nassaji's resilient defense denied Mumbai the finishing touch.
In the 84th minute, Coach Anthony Fernandes opted for a tactical shift, bringing in Jayesh Rane to replace Vinit Rai, aiming to inject more pace into Mumbai's attacking endeavors. Simultaneously, Franklin Nazareth entered the field, taking the place of Bipin Singh.
The move almost paid off in the 88th minute when Chhangte orchestrated a brilliant play. Passing the ball wide to Vikram on the wings, who, with precision, cut it back to the center for Apuia. The latter delivered a looping ball into the box, putting pressure on the Nassaji defense ultimately forcing the keeper to come off his line and punch the ball away, ensuring safety for the Iranian side.
In the first minute of added time (90+1'), Sanjeev Stalin and Akash Mishra combined effectively on the left wing. Stalin's pass found Jayesh Rane inside the box, who swiftly turned and unleashed a shot. Unfortunately for Mumbai, a Nassaji defender made a crucial block, denying them a potential lifeline.
As the clock ticked into the third minute of injury time, Nassaji attempted a dangerous play with Farshid delivering a menacing cross into the box. Mumbai's custodian, Phurba Lachenpa, exhibited his shot-stopping prowess by punching the ball away to safety.
Mumbai continued to look for goal and minutes later, Chhangte, stationed on the right, received the ball but unfortunately couldn't find his teammates in the box. His looping cross sailed past everyone, culminating in a goal kick for Nassaji.
In the final sequence of the game, Nassaji's Hossein Zamehran made a spirited run down the right wing, attempting a shot on goal. However, Lachenpa, with a commendable save, denied Nassaji the opportunity to further extend their lead. The ensuing rebound, in a desperate attempt to clear, struck an onrushing Farshid but ultimately went wide off the target.
Despite Mumbai's late surges, Nassaji Mazandaran managed to hold their ground, securing a 2-0 victory. Mumbai City FC will now regroup and prepare for their final group-stage encounter against Navbahor at home on December 4th in the AFC Champions League. The Islanders will seek redemption and look to sign off their campaign on a positive note in front of their home crowd.