Even in the short history of the ISL, Atletico de Kolkata and Mumbai City FC have by and large traded blows as equals, though one must acknowledge that Kolkata have been the better of the two teams in both seasons, with Mumbai not even making the playoffs in the first two years. The head-to-head for 2014 and 2015 reads two wins for both teams, one each at home and away.
The 2016 season was expected to be different though, and the sub-plot in the season's first match at the Mumbai Football Arena was that of a matchup between the managers Alexandre Guimaraes of Costa Rica, and the visiting Jose Molina of Spain.
Costa Rica and Spain are not two football nations whose name you would normally take in the same breath. While the Spaniards have a long history of producing strong teams at the FIFA World Cup as well as the European Championships -- a sequence that culminated in an incredible run of success between 2008 and 2012 -- Costa Rica are relative babes in the global football woods, with their best finish in their fourth World Cup in Brazil coming to an end in the quarter-finals at the hands of Netherlands, and that too on penalties.
Similarly, Mumbai and Kolkata as Indian football centres bear comparison, but only so much. Yes, the IFA Shield played in the former could be rivalled by the now-defunct Rovers Cup played at the picturesque Cooperage ground in the latter. Yes, India's first football captain Dr Talimeren Ao hailed from Nagaland in the north-east, but played for Kolkata's famed Mohun Bagan when he led the team at the 1948 London Olympics. Eight years later, the Indian team was still dominated to a great extent by footballers who plied their trade in the east, yet the talismanic performances for the team led by Kolkata's Samar Banerjee came from Mumbai's own Neville D'Souza.
Guimaraes had already outwitted one Spaniard earlier in the season against FC Pune City, though back then Antonio Habas could only watch from the sidelines. The Mumbai performance away to Pune was a defensive masterclass, and the first 45 minutes of this match showed the ability of this team to produce scorching phases of attacking play. Guimaraes made two changes that altered the way they approached the formation as well as their strategy -- the more youthful duo of Boithang Haokip and Gerson Vieira produced pace and energy greater than Diego Forlan and Anwar did in the first two lineups. Gerson's inclusion, in particular, was vital as it gave left-back Lalhmangaihsanga Ralte space to move up to advanced positions, a move that denied Sameehg Doutie forays down his favoured right channel.
This was a significant moral victory in the early stages, because when these two teams met at the DY Patil Stadium last year, Kolkata were going through an indifferent phase and searching for scoring options after the injury to their marquee Helder Postiga. Mumbai, who had won three of their previous four games leading up to the home match against Kolkata, were brought crashing down 4-1 by Iain Hume's hat-trick, but there were two assists from Doutie to spur the visitors on.
On the night, the attacking triad of Haokip, Leo Costa and Matias Defederico were running rings around the Kolkata defence, with the Argentine international Defederico taking advantage of a long ball from Aiborlang Khongjee to ghost in behind Arnab Mondal, hustle the Kolkata defence and fire Mumbai into a well-deserved lead, which they preserved till half-time despite some enterprise at the other end from the visitors.
Molina produced a couple of substitutions in the second half, pulling out the combative but usually abrasive Bikramjit Singh and Hume, introducing the steady Abhinas Ruidas and handing a Kolkata debut to Hume's 2014 Kerala Blasters teammate Stephen Pearson. The attacking intent from Kolkata was there for all to see, but Guimaraes probably missed a trick in keeping on Pronay Halder, who had done well in the match, but had seen a yellow card early in the second half for a barge into the Kolkata goalkeeper Debjit Majumder. Halder produced a second challenge soon after against Borja Fernandez, which attracted the referee's ire, and his second booking saw the game tilt in a big way towards the visitors.
That they conceded a goal thanks to Javi Lara's shot taking a deflection off substitute Jackichand Singh was immaterial - there were chances galore for the 2014 champions to steal a second successive away win. In the same breath, one could say there were at least a couple of occasions in the first half where the Kolkata defence lived dangerously and were lucky not to be punished because of the vigour and venom shown by Haokip.
The 1-1 draw suited the tempo and the intent of both sides in the final analysis. Atletico de Kolkata, one of four teams now to have won their first two matches of an ISL season, prevented Mumbai City from setting a new record on that count. A sequence of four matches with results and 16 goals in them came to an end. This time, a Costa Rican met a Spaniard on home soil for the first time and shared the spoils of a well-contested game, much like what happened when the senior teams first met in a friendly in San Jose in 2011 and the match ended in a 2-2 draw.
The second encounter in Leon four years on went the way of Spain thanks to Cesc Fabregas, but not before the central Americans took the lead.
In the ISL, this return match will not take so long to materialise. We'll know in precisely 14 days if Senor Molina can use home advantage to go one-up against Senor Guimaraes.