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Sunday, April 18, 2021

In ISL final, Antonio Habas’ pragmatism meets Sergio Lobera’s flair

Sergio Lobera's Mumbai City will hope to take the trophy home in their first-ever ISL final after piping Antonio Habas' ATK Mohun Bagan to the League Winners Shield last month.

Written by Shashank Nair | New Delhi |
Updated: March 13, 2021 7:28:33 am
Mumbai City head coach Sergio Lobera (L) with ATK Mohun Bagan boss Antonio Habas (R). (ISL)

Antonio Habas has been to a few Indian Super League (ISL) finals. He’s won a couple and might add yet another trophy to his kitty on Saturday at Margao’s Fatorda Stadium. But it’s safe to say that this will be unlike any other ISL final that he has had to prepare his team for.

The ATK Mohun Bagan manager will meet his compatriot Sergio Lobera of Mumbai City. On the touchline, it will be a battle of two Spanish coaches. But their approaches couldn’t have been more different.

For Lobera, it isn’t only about winning or losing; it is also about how his players approach games. He has risen through the ranks of Barcelona’s famed system and continues to demand absolute fealty to the style of play that he envisions: keep the ball, pass it around, show some creativity. Be it Goa or Mumbai City, playing the ‘Lobera way’ has been sacrosanct. He has been brought into the City Football Group mix on this very premise.

On the other hand is Habas’ pragmatism. He is the complete opposite of the commonly-held idea of Spanish football. Chop and change when the match starts to go south, scream from the touchline as plans start to careen into a crash that finals can often be about – Habas has been there and done that.

During both of the clashes between the two teams this season, the ‘other Spaniard’ has been swarmed with questions on style and philosophy. So much so that Habas, one of the most successful managers of the ISL, has had to resort to a “Football is not only about possession,” argument.

In their two meetings this season, Habas has tried multiple permutations and combinations. He played with three at the back in their first encounter and then four when the League Shield and an AFC Champions League group stage spot were on the line. He put Manvir Singh – usually a striker for the Indian national team – on the wings as a marauding right back.

He tried playing Roy Krishna further up the field, which ended with ATK not even showing up for a possession battle in their first match and losing in the process.

And then, in the second match, Habas brought his Fijian crown jewel further back infield for more control in the middle of the park but lost to a freak set-piece. “I think they have 65-70 per cent of their goals from set-pieces. We have to control football on set-pieces. We have to concentrate on small details and avoid making mistakes. We have to defend our personality, our style and our model,” said Habas, the man known for winning games through set-pieces and often last-ditch, backs-to-the-wall defending.

Lobera, on the other hand, has not just the advantage of footballing philosophy, but a superior squad to boost. A squad that has allowed their win rate to graph upwards, even when their philosophy fails them on the pitch.

Cup half empty

Despite the lengths both Spaniards have gone to when it comes to working on their teams and trying to find the ultimate winning formula, the occasion for this clash lessens the efforts made to reach it.

A highly coveted spot in the Asian Champions League was won by Mumbai after their last game of the season, on the last day of the league, by beating ATK Mohun Bagan, who were leading the table going into that match. It was an occasion that highlighted how a league system, which tends to be equated to a marathon, could have been won by any of the two equally deserving teams, with Mumbai City edging out ATK Bagan in a photo-finish.

That match, with its consequences on the health of both teams on an Asian level as well as a financial standpoint, should have been the crescendo of a tough league season that has seen all teams endure a Covid-bubble that has lasted for months. But even though there might not be a lot to play for, the sheer clash of philosophies between two sides that are hard to separate could make Saturday’s final an affair to remember.

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