For Mumbai City FC, the 2020-’21 Indian Super League season so far has been very nearly perfect. They started the summer with a squad overhaul, getting in almost all their transfer targets on board and Coach Sergio Lobera joined the club from FC Goa. Despite a non-existent pre-season, their expensively assembled squad clicked into gear almost straight away and hasn’t looked back since.
They won the League Winners’ Shield and thereby secured a berth in next season’s AFC Champions League group stage before pipping FC Goa to a place in the final. This showpiece on Saturday evening is pretty much the final frontier for Lobera’s rampant, all-conquering force.
But standing in their way are Antonio Habas’ ATK Mohun Bagan, one of the most efficient and robust teams the ISL has ever seen.
For Mumbai City FC, it’s a challenge that they have overcome twice already in the league stages, but facing them in a final will be a different ball game. Habas has already won two ISL finals in his career and has a knack for getting his team over the line in big knockout games.
Both coaches have played down any possible impact that the two previous games will have on the final but Mumbai City FC, who didn’t concede a single goal against the Mariners during the two league phase games, are bound to feel slightly better going into the final.
Although, ATK Mohun Bagan are an opponent they would have prefered to avoid at this stage.
For the neutrals, there couldn’t have been a better final. Few would argue that there is a better candidate for the final than these two — both Bagan and Mumbai have been head and shoulders above the rest throughout the season. Both teams come into the final with identical records, 12 wins and just four defeats in the league stage. This is only the third time in seven seasons that the teams that finished in the top two positions are contesting the final.
Contrast in styles, but will it matter?
Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan have few things in common when it comes to their style of play. Lobera’s men like to keep hold of the ball and have completed 10,570 passes this season compared to ATK Mohun Bagan’s 7311.
While Lobera advocated that it’s important that every team plays in a way that best suits them, he urged his players to show smartness on the field.
“They (ATK Mohun Bagan) are a very good team with good players and have the momentum. But the most important thing now is to put the focus on ourselves and try to do our best. We have no specific plan, only small details about the opponent. We need to work 100% on our style of play,” said Lobera.
“However, sometimes when you play big teams it’s not possible to play your best football. That time you must be smart and manage the situation. That’s what we did against FC Goa in the semi-finals where we stayed together and strong and saw the tough period out,” he added.
Habas on the other hand downplayed the importance of ball possession.
“Ball possession is not everything. There are other ways to play football. Most important thing is what you do when you have the ball,” he said.
The Mariners have been solid defensively all season and have relied on their three-pronged attack for goals. Led by the wily Roy Krishna, the Mariners have found different routes to goal. Against NorthEast United FC in the semi-final second leg, Krishna’s clever positional play proved to be the difference between the two teams.
So when the two teams meet on Saturday, it will be more about seizing the opportunities for both teams rather than trying to impose their respective styles on the game. The Islanders and Mariners will play their own football and the team that does that wins the big moments that will end with the trophy.
“We have to analyse the match and control (our chances of) victory than (try to) control the way they play. The opponent will play and maybe, we will have difficulties,” Habas said.
There will be few selection dilemmas for Lobera, with the exception of figuring out Mandar Rao Dessai’s replacement. The Goan will miss the final due to suspension. In his absence, Amey Ranawade is set to play at right-back.
With an otherwise fully fit squad to pick from, it will be interesting to see who Lobera picks for Mumbai upfront. Having preferred Adam le Fondre in the second leg against FC Goa, will the Spaniard go back to Bartholomew Ogbeche who scored in both games against ATK Mohun Bagan this season?
As for Habas, the fitness of midfielder Edu Bedia remains a concern. The midfielder can add that extra bit of creativity in the middle of the park but the Spanish coach may stick to the team that beat NorthEast United.
Golden Boot and Golden Glove
The match will also decide the fate of the Golden Boot and Golden Glove winners. While Bagan striker Roy Krishna and Goa’s Igor Angulo are tied on 14 goals for the golden boot, a goal on Saturday will hand the award to the Fijian, who has played more minutes than the Spaniard.
The race for the goalkeeper award is between Mumbai custodian Amrinder Singh and ATKMB’s Arindam Bhattacharja. Both players have 10 clean sheets to their name. At the moment, Arindam is in pole position, having conceded fewer goals.
These small individual battles will go a long way in determining who wins the ultimate prize as Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan clash for the title of champions. Can Mumbai City FC achieve complete perfection by becoming champions or will ATK Mohun Bagan add an early blemish to City Football Group’s almost uninterrupted charge in Indian football so far?
Previous meetings this season
Match 55: Mumbai City FC beat ATK Mohun Bagan 1-0 to go five points clear but the race for the top spot got interesting after this.
Match 110: Mumbai City FC beat ATK Mohun Bagan 2-0 (and clinched the top spot plus AFC Champions League berth)