Mohun Bagan or Mumbai City, who will win ISL 2023-24 League Shield?


In the end, it was always bound to come down to these two.

The pedigree and success of Mohun Bagan Super Giant against the financial might and success of Mumbai City FC. Four of the last six trophies (and 7/13 all-time) offered up by the Indian Super League (the Shield and Playoff cup winners) have gone to these two sides.

There were pretenders to the throne along the way, with FC Goa, Kerala Blasters and Odisha FC all topping the table at one point. Yet, inevitably, the fate of the League Shield has come down to a direct contest at the cauldron that is the Salt Lake stadium - Bagan need all three points while Mumbai can make do with one.

A final day result against their title rivals to win the league? Bagan have previous when it comes to this - famously scoring a late header against Bengaluru FC at the Kanteerava to win the I-League in 2015. But to defeat Mumbai City is no small task - Bagan have failed to do so in seven of their last eight attempts. Their last win at the Salt Lake over Mumbai came back in the ISL semifinals in 2016, in their guise as Atletico de Kolkata.

Mumbai have emerged triumphant in five of their last seven visits to face Bagan in Kolkata, but that won't stop the maroon and green side of the Maidan from turning up in large numbers. After all, Antonio Habas, who's delivered two ISL titles in the past, has tasted defeat in the league only once since his mid-season return to Bagan.

The battle of the managers

It's a quirk of the ISL that the League Shield is going to be decided by two teams who suffered managerial departures midway through the season. Habas replaced Juan Ferrando after a run of three defeats in January, while Des Buckingham leapt at the chance of managing boyhood club Oxford United and was replaced at the helm by Petr Kratky in December.

The pair stabilized the results of their respective sides when coming in, before going on winning runs that pushed them up the table. It also helped that Goa, Odisha, and Kerala Blasters saw form desert them at crucial moments during the season.

And so, it is Habas vs Kratky to decide the ISL League Shield.

In years past, one could easily make the case of this being a clash of styles - Habas with his trademark 1-0 wins based around defensive excellence while Mumbai City famously employ the City Football Group's attacking brand of football.

Yet, this isn't as clear cut a contrast this time. Kratky came into Mumbai and began with a pair of 0-0 results to build a defensive foundation, while Bagan have been free-scoring under Habas. Dimi 'Mr. Inevitable' Petratos will score no matter what the system employed is, while Jason Cummings has thrived as well. There is a greater jeopardy to Bagan's defence - this is after all, still the squad that Ferrando built and Habas can only do so much.

Kratky meanwhile, has watched ISL cheat-code Greg Stewart depart the club, which takes away a big part of his win over Ferrando earlier this season - a madcap game that saw nine-man Mumbai defeat nine-man Bagan 2-1 (and three further red cards after the game). He's pivoted beautifully in Stewart's absence, Alberto Noguera and Vikram Partap Singh coming in to great effect, in front of a settled back five as Kratky shuffles his cards going forward.

The battle on the pitch

Title-deciding clashes are generally nervous, circumspect affairs. One wouldn't blame either manager for opting for a defence-first approach. However, with the quality of attacking players on display, this could be another high-scoring encounter. Bagan are the highest scoring team in the league... followed by Mumbai.

The two teams are also top of the league when it comes to penalties, in contrasting ways. Mumbai have earned the most penalties this season, while Bagan have conceded the most - Habas better be on the lookout for the trickery of Vikram, Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Lallianzuala Chhangte driving into the box.

Yet, whatever likelihood Mumbai have of earning a penalty is cancelled out by Dimi Petratos being near certain to score, especially if Habas opts to setup in an attacking fashion.

With the onus on Bagan needing all three points, one can expect an open encounter, which makes it very likely that we might witness another see-saw thriller, a perfect way to cap off what's been a thrilling 10th season of the ISL - which witnessed a title race involving five teams and a playoff race involving six.

What the title means

For these two clubs that are perennial winners, it might seem just another piece of silverware, but this particular title would mean more. For Bagan, it's a victory for the fans, whose persistent efforts saw the name change back to Mohun Bagan (albeit with a suffix), and this would be the first time they'd be able to celebrate a title in their own colours, in their club's own name, without any asterisks.

For Mumbai, it's a victory for CFG, who seamlessly absorbed the departure of an adored coach and their best player with plug-and-play solutions from within their structure. This was the most banana-peel of banana peel scenarios and Mumbai have waltzed through steadily.

For the league, which has pushed the playoffs as a way to manufacture drama in the final day of the season, it's a lesson in accepting that sometimes, the football gods just deliver, and you have to let them.

It's Mohun Bagan vs Mumbai City, and the football universe can't wait.