Aizawl FC are on the verge of winning their first I-League title as they prepare to take on Mohun Bagan on Saturday. A team that were on the verge of relegation last season have been transformed under new coach Khalid Jamil, who signed with Aizawl at the start of the season from Mumbai FC. Despite having managed Mumbai for eight seasons, Jamil himself says he never expected to be in the race for the title.
"I had no clue we would be in the race for the title," Jamil told ESPN. "I had no expectation we would reach this stage. We were looking to take it just one game at a time. Bas accha khelna tha, jo bhi match hai achha khelna tha (We just wanted to play well) And that has helped us."
The title decider will be played at the Rajiv Gandhi stadium in Aizawl, which, Jamil says, shouldn't play on the players' minds. He wants them to go out and "enjoy the game".
"In Aizawl everyone is talking about football and the game. The whole place is about football. The players also realise what is happening. They know ki kuch to special hai (There is something special happening), he says.
"It is important that they are able to keep their mind on the game because there is pressure on them. I've told them that there will be pressure and they need to stay focused and stay in control during the game. They need to enjoy the game."
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With two matches to go, Aizawl - in their second season in the I-League's top division - and Mohun Bagan are tied on 33 points. A deadlock between the teams will see the head-to-head between them decide the title, followed by the goal difference in the games between the teams. Bagan beat Aizawl 3-2 at home so if Bagan win again on Saturday, they will claim the title. Aizawl can clinch the title if they win by two goals or more.
Jamil knows his task is cut out against Mohun Bagan, who have finished in the top two in the past three seasons, emerging winners in 2014-15. With Bagan's main attacking threat Sony Norde hitting form, scoring 3 goals in his last 4 games this month, the coach says Aizawl's man marking has to be spot on.
"It is a big match and at the same time a very difficult match for us. They are a champion team. We are going to play against quality players. We can't make any mistakes. We will have to be perfect with our man marking. There is pressure on me as well. This will not be an easy game. I need to stay calm too."
With Bagan having an AFC Cup game three days prior to the game on Saturday, Jamil sees an opening to finish the job in Aizawl. "I'm just waiting for the match," he says. "I've told the players they need to finish the job here. Accha finish karna hai bas (We need to finish well, that's it)."