The Islanders have looked like title-favourites from the start of the season.
120th minute, 0-0, semi-final hanging in the balance, nerves at an all-time high, an imminent penalty shootout up ahead…
And, you substitute the best goalkeeper in the league with a newbie yet to play a single minute in the Indian Super League. That lad steps up between the sticks and saves the very first kick of the shootout to earn his team an early advantage. Nobody gave Phurba Lachenpa much of a chance to come out victorious in perhaps the nerviest moment of Mumbai City FC’s campaign.
But, Sergio Lobera had seen the 23-year-old sweat it out on the training ground, saving spot-kicks consistently over time. Lachenpa patiently waited for his turn for over four months. When the coach finally handed him an opportunity, the lad grabbed it with both hands.
That’s what forms the hallmark of a champion team, where players keep knocking on the door for their chance. When they finally break the door down, they ensure that they optimize that opening to the best of their ability; the ability that is honed through hours and hours and training, by a coach who prioritizes preparation and performances over the eventual outcome of a game.
Sergio Lobera and Co. have truly turned a chapter in the club’s history. Well, it has been a natural consequence of the mega takeover by the famed City Football Group (CFG).
The international giants sprang into action straightaway by hiring one of the best tacticians in the league and then shelling out money en masse to build a well-rounded, formidable squad. However, for monetary resources to translate into on-field success always takes considerable time in the sport. And that looked ever so likely to happen as Mumbai meekly succumbed to a defeat against NorthEast United in their opening game of the season.
However, what followed was seamless domination of any team that dared to come Mumbai’s way. It seemed unbelievable for a team that was assembled only a month ago to function as fluently as the Islanders did. On certain occasions, their football looked like poetry in motion. On other instances, it looked ruthlessly efficient, as they kept on netting goals from set-pieces. All in all, they looked like a side that could do no wrong.
They played Lobera-ball as well as FC Goa in 2019-20. They had the set-piece prowess of the victorious Bengaluru FC side of 2018-19. Their backline’s sheer strength reminded one of the erstwhile ATK’s defence in 2019-20. Sergio Lobera had instilled his philosophy into the unit and introduced newer, integral elements to take his side several notches higher than the rest. He seemed to have learnt unique dimensions of every former champion team and moulded them into his style at Mumbai City.
However, the team’s golden run had to end at some point. It all started with a goalless draw against Hyderabad in the second-half of January. What followed was a scrappy victory against SC East Bengal, another draw versus Chennaiyin FC before their unbeaten streak came to an end against Khalid Jamil’s NorthEast United. The Islanders recovered through a victory against Kerala Blasters, but Ishan Pandita’s last-minute goal again robbed them off points in a thrilling 3-3 draw against FC Goa.
Suddenly, from a period of sustained success, Mumbai fell into a phase of looming uncertainty. They seemed to be casually giving away the lead that they had consciously built over ATK Mohun Bagan in the first half of the campaign. Finally, all hell broke loose with successive defeats against Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC. The Islanders were outplayed in both of these encounters and Sergio Lobera lost his star man Hugo Boumous to a four-match suspension.
The recovery seemed too steep for Mumbai, especially as an irresistibly consistent ATKMB looked set to hold on to their late advantage. But, a late twist ensued; something that tested Lobera’s coaching acumen. The Spaniard must have fronted several difficult challenges in his decades-long career. However, he was hell-bent on claiming the ultimate prize with a recently built squad, backed by the powerful CFG setup. And, he showed that he had the gall to take the fight to the opposition.
ATKMB dropped points against Hyderabad FC on 22nd February. Lobera sniffed an opportunity and his team followed the rest. Mumbai banged in six goals against Odisha FC, with each successful strike reaffirming the fact that they weren’t out of the race for the top spot just yet. The Spaniard increasingly showed a flexibility with respect to his team selection. He didn’t refrain from fielding the duo of Adam le Fondre and Bartholomew Ogbeche together in a must-win encounter. Most coaches would have settled for a defensive approach, knocking in an early goal and then sitting back to defend that lead for the rest of the match.
Sergio Lobera did the exact opposite. His troops looked adamant to rub off any doubts over their goalscoring efficiency that night. Star domestic player Bipin Singh scored a hat-trick, the first and only of the campaign so far. Raynier Fernandes shifted to a slightly unusual deeper role to partner Ahmed Jahouh, Mehtab Singh remained dependable at the back, Amey Ranawade and Vignesh Dakshinamurthy provided solidity with some flair from the flanks. Their contributions were invaluable that night against Odisha, in a game that unleashed a reinvigorated Mumbai City unit.
What followed was the landmark decider versus ATK Mohun Bagan. Mumbai couldn’t settle for anything less than a victory to attain their most coveted objective. Le Fondre and Ogbeche played together. Mehtab filled in at the back. Raynier played deep again. However, Lobera surprisingly introduced the much-rated Pranjal Bhumij to the lineup for this absolutely critical contest. Bhumij, like Lachenpa, hadn’t played a single minute before starting the last game of the league campaign.
Mourtada Fall scored the opener, Ogbeche doubled the lead. Le Fondre did the dirty defensive work, Bhumij ran his lungs out, Raynier defended with his some serious vigour as Lobera’s workhorses put in an incredibly tenacious effort to hold on to their advantage for almost an hour in the game.
Despite some clever pragmatism, Mumbai had set the tone for this match from the offset. They took the lead, furthered it and then sustained it for the better part of the game. ATKMB kept on knocking at Mumbai’s door, but to no avail. Their best opportunity came from outside of the penalty box and Amrinder Singh wasn’t going to let any of those go into the net.
The semi-final tie that followed was pretty unique. Its first leg was quite scrappy, where nothing separated the two sides. The second leg was more uneven, with the result hanging in the balance. Lastly, the team that held their nerve until the very end prevailed.
However, the point to note here is that when push came to shove, Lobera didn’t cow down to restrain his natural instincts. As the challenges piled up, so did his own conviction and belief in his philosophy and the team’s style of play.
They dominated the game against Odisha, controlled proceedings against ATKMB and didn’t budge to mounting pressure across two legs from FC Goa. When the decisive moment came, Rowllin Borges stepped up to convert his spot-kick. So, did Raynier, Ranawade and Mandar Rao Dessai, the domestic pillars of Lobera’s sublime unit.
As Mumbai stand on the cusp of history, Sergio Lobera will be adamant to erase some troublesome past memories of surrendering the league in the concluding moments of the ISL. But, needless to say, he will stay true to his philosophy even in the most tumultuous of times. 13th of March will be the ultimate test of whether his staunch beliefs help him and the club to claim their maiden ISL title.