"We need to enjoy the game." Ahead of their crunch match against ATK Mohun Bagan, the message from Mumbai City coach Sergio Lobera remains consistent -- go out there, keep the ball, have fun. And win.
"The last time we met, it was just another game, where three points were at stake [Mumbai won 1-0]. [This] is a final. We need to play to win."
Of course, anything less than a win means ATKMB go away with the top spot and the glory of the AFC Champions League slot, but this isn't a one off. You see, that's the other consistent theme that Lobera has always followed -- the need to win. From his first press conference as the new Mumbai City coach to now, this message has been drilled home. There's been no tempering of expectations, of underplaying strengths, no poker-faced bluffing. It has always been, 'we are good, and we are here to win.'
For Bartholomew Ogbeche, star striker, it's the main reason behind why Mumbai are just a win away from taking home the league shield. That they are all united by their "obsession to win", their "hunger for success." Adam Le Fondre, star striker II, speaking mid-way through the season had said he had joined to "win the golden boot [he's three goals behind current leader Roy Krishna] and the league [three points away from part 1]."
Mandar Rao Dessai gave up the possibility of being the first Indian to captain a side in the AFC Champions League proper to "play, and win, with [Sergio] Lobera". Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh, and Hugo Boumous have now followed Lobera across three clubs.
Cy Goddard, much younger than the names mentioned, a prospect honed and nurtured at the Tottenham Hotspur academy, took the massive decision to move continents and play in India not just because "[his] style of play suits Lobera's. Quick passing and constant movement," but because he recognised in his coach a strong desire to win. He struggled initially but has slowly settled in, playing the Hugo Boumous no. 10 role to perfection in the (suspended) absence of the temperamental playmaker.
A little more than four months ago, arguably the most powerful entity in world football brought together a bunch of expensively assembled footballers to play under a manager who's reputation had been burnished by three excellent years in India. Now, that bunch is this far away from handing the perfect start to City Football Group's Indian adventure.
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"We are a group of players that have just come together for some months," says Ogbeche. "We cannot be compared to the likes of ATK[MB] or FC Goa or Bengaluru -- they have become teams, they have been together for the past [few] years," he says. 'That's not our case, people forget that. It's a process."
It's a process, Ogbeche believes, that has been accelerated by their competitive edge and a special feeling of "brotherhood and unity" amongst the squad. It's not just that they are talented, but that they "look out for each other."
"When one of us is down, not alright, we come together to lift them. That's the togetherness, the brotherhood we have here that has taken us this far," he says. You could see it when Goddard got his first goal of the season on Wednesday -- the smile on his teammates' faces were wider than his own.
And so they are here. Brotherhood and sheer talent and coaching nous has got them this far. A virtual final to decide the league stages of the 2020-21 ISL. Big money vs. bigger money. Goliath vs. Goliath. A proper showdown of the giants.
Lobera knows that his team can match, and beat, the other tactically and technically, but thinks the game will be decided by who is mentally strongest. "It's important that we control our emotions. That's the most important thing. We need to be strong, in the good moments and bad," he says. "It's a final, and we need to play to win."
As they always do.