Speaking ahead of Mumbai City's massive clash against ATK Mohun Bagan, Bartholomew Ogbeche had been a picture of calm. Going into the last game of the season, he had scored only six goals, a sharp dip from the 15 and 12 he had bagged in the last two Indian Super League (ISL) seasons (playing for far inferior teams, at that). He had started just seven games. After every game, after every goal, the broadcasters and the press had asked him if was not irritated at the lack of playing time, at the sudden shift in the pecking order -- from undeniable talisman at his previous club to an option off the bench here. Each time he had laughed, and joked and batted it aside. So ahead of the meeting with Bagan, he repeated them all, smile on his face, before saying "I count more the importance of my goals than how many goals I get to score."
Now, he has scored arguably the most important of them all.
Sergio Lobera had, for vast swathes of the season, preferred the pace and mobility and easy movement of Adam Le Fondre up front. He was the kind of forward Lobera has always preferred -- think Ferran Corominas at FC Goa. And for the first half of the season, it had worked perfectly well. Till it didn't. Teams got more physical, shut down passing lanes, and Mumbai withdrew into a shell. Which is when Lobera turned to the physical awesomeness of Ogbeche. If you can't delicately prise a door open, might as well smash the damn thing in.
Earlier this season, Ogbeche had scored the lone goal in Mumbai's 1-0 win over Bagan. On Sunday, he scored the second that clinched the deal, making sure Mumbai were crowned champions of India's top division on the basis of their head-to-head record vs Bagan. Important goals.
Ogbeche's introduction to the starting XI, for this game especially, was a mark of the transformation of Lobera as well. From the stubborn, inflexible, win-or-die-we-pass-the-ball philosopher to the pragmatist who adapted tactics and lineups and philosophies to suit the opposition. His team scored 35 goals this season -- more than anyone else in the division, of course -- but more than half of them have come via set-pieces. Ahmed Jahouh's glorious passing, Ogbeche's aerial prowess, Hernan Santana's clever movement and the sheer unstoppable size of Mourtada Fall were exploited to perfection.
Many observers had felt that his tactical inflexibility had been one of the main reasons why FC Goa had let him go last year (three matches before Goa lifted the Shield), and if that's true, this season has been a study in how a man learns from his biggest setbacks.
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With the full backing of the world's most powerful footballing entity, the City Football Group, Lobera had set about assembling a team of superstars across the pitch. He raided his former club for Hugo Boumous, Fall, Jahouh, and Mandar Rao Dessai. And Jackichand Singh via Jamshedpur. He brought in Ogbeche and Le Fondre and Hernan Santana and young Cy Goddard. It would have been easy to struggle in this swarm of big egos, to allow the constricting life of a bio-bubble to get to him -- especially when it had looked like the league shield had slipped away from Mumbai at one stage. But that didn't happen.
That Ogbeche, the man he had bought for big money and kept on the bench, would come out week-in and week-out and preach about the unity of the squad, the feeling of brotherhood amongst the players, the quality of the coaching, stands as a striking testament to Lobera's man-management skills. As does the fact that Le Fondre would swat away questions of a rivalry with Ogbeche and speak only about how good it was to play with him -- whether as a support striker or in the hole behind or on the wings.
It's that team spirit, that "obsession to win" as Ogbeche puts it, that saw Mumbai beat Bagan on Sunday. Le Fondre went from support striker to man-marking Edu Garcia. Ogbeche ran and ran and ran to keep the pressure up. Jahouh -- laid-back, barely-ever-breaks-into-a-jog Jahouh -- topped the sprint charts. Fall was everywhere, scoring the opener and throwing his massive frame on the line repeatedly. Santana curbed his attacking instincts to do the impossible - keep Roy Krishna quiet. Dessai and Amey Ranawade toed the balance between attack and defence to perfection. They did not out-pass or out-possess their opposition. They did not play Bagan off the park. Instead, they looked the division's toughest unit in the eye and out-fought them. Their reward for it? A place in the 2021 AFC Champions League.
There is, of course, the small matter of the playoffs to go, but CFG will feel confident in declaring they made the right choice with Lobera. And Lobera, in turn, will feel that he made the right choice in choosing flexibility over rigid philosophy. Winning, after all, is what matters most at the end.