Mumbai City FC head coach Petr Kratky is gearing up for a tough challenge against Mohun Bagan Super Giant as they aim to defend the Indian Super League (ISL) League Shield at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata on Monday.

The battle between the two table-toppers will take place with the League Shield at stake, as the Islanders hold only a two-point lead over the Mariners on the league table. Kratky’s men currently occupy the top spot on the league table with 47 points from 21 games, whereas the Kolkata-based side has 45 points in the same number of matches.

Kratky took over as Mumbai City FC’s head coach in December 2023, succeeding Des Buckingham. In his half-season tenure in India, he has propelled his team to the summit of the league table, vying for their third League Shield on the concluding day of the league stage.

The head coach is pleased with the team's performance so far as they head into their final league game.

It feels very good. You know, it's always a privilege to be up the ladder and you know even better when it's (till) the last game (of the league stage),” stated Krakty in the pre-match press conference. 

He continued, "It's an exciting time in football, (especially when you're close to clinching a title). We always have to appreciate this opportunity because it doesn't come around very often. So, I'm excited.”

In the 2023-24 season, with just one match left in the 22-game league, Mumbai City FC have endured the fewest defeats, with only two losses so far.

If the Islanders manage to avoid defeat in the final league game of the season, they will equal the record for the fewest matches lost in the league phase in any season of the Indian Super League (2 – achieved by Mumbai City FC in 2022-23 and ATK in 2016).

"It's been a really good season, our second consecutive season competing for the League Shield. So, putting it into perspective, overall, we've performed very well throughout the season," he shared.

When the two sides met earlier this season, Juan Ferrando was at the helm of Mohun Bagan SG, and the Mariners experienced a narrow 2-1 defeat against Mumbai City FC, marked by a record seven red cards shown during the match.

Following Antonio Lopez Habas's appointment as head coach of the Green and Maroons, Kratky perceives a positive transformation within the team.

He said, "You can see, the change of coach happened for a reason, and I believe for them (Mohun Bagan SG), it was a positive change.

"They made some changes to the formation. Obviously, they have strong foreigners and strong Indian players. So there was a change, which is why they bounced back after the first half of the season and are now fighting for the title. They're improving, getting better as time goes on after that change,” he added. 

The Islanders will step onto the pitch in Kolkata without Vikram Partap Singh in the squad, as he serves his suspension. Nonetheless, the Czech-Australian coach expresses confidence that whoever fills his role, whether it's Bipin Singh or Gurkirat Singh, will excel just the same.

He shared, "It's always sad when players have to miss games for whatever reason, be it injury or suspension. Obviously, we will miss Vikram in this game. However, the strength of the team off the bench and the players behind provide a massive advantage for us."

Expressing his confidence in his player, the 42-year-old stated, "I'm quite confident in the group; they're a good bunch. So for me, this is just another game. We have to focus on playing the game, not the occasion, if that makes sense. We possess all the qualities needed, but we have to work hard because it won't be easy."

Staying mentally strong will be key: Rahul Bheke

Captain Rahul Bheke accompanied the head coach to the press conference. The centre-back has been a stalwart in the backline of the Islanders, leading the defence with utmost maturity and aiding his team in securing seven clean sheets.

He has also recorded 16 successful tackles and won 63 duels so far this season, in addition to his 19 interceptions and five blocks.

When questioned about his captain's address to the players before the match Bheke replied, "We're going to play in Kolkata, where there will be like 30 to 40K people supporting Mohun Bagan SG. So it's only our 30 guys who will be there fighting against so many people. So staying mentally strong will be the key. So my only message to all the players will be that we stay together, support each other, ensure we push each other in training, and then approach the pitch with a positive mindset.”

Mumbai City FC have amassed 47 points this season with one league game yet to be played, establishing the Islanders as the team with the highest point tally in a single ISL season.

The 33-year-old attributes the team's fighting spirit as the primary factor that propelled them to this achievement, despite facing numerous challenges and fluctuations throughout the season.

"If you observe the togetherness and the fighting mentality, staying positive was the key point. Despite numerous ups and downs within the team, I don't think other teams faced the same challenges. Yet, we have achieved what we aimed for. The points we have accumulated, like today we are at 47 points, mark another record that we've broken. So I believe the players' mentality, their resilience in remaining positive and fighting till the end, was crucial and contributed to our success,” Bheke stated.