Melbourne City coach Erick Mombaerts highlighted the mental battle as key to tomorrow night's Grand Final as he staked a claim to be the underdogs for the season decider.
Near the end of his first season at the helm in Bundoora, Mombaerts' reinvention of City would be provided with a fitting pièce de résistance should they break through to lift the A-League title.
Melbourne Heart never won a trophy prior to the club’s takeover by the City Football Group, while the men of reborn City have only won a single piece of silverware: the 2016 FFA Cup.
That cup-winning experience matters little now, though, with the only Luke Brattan from that squad set to start on Sunday - and he plays for Sydney now...
Of City’s expected starting Grand Final XI tomorrow, just Josh Brillante has lifted the A-League toilet seat, doing so twice in Championship-winning seasons with Sydney.
In contrast, up to seven players of Steve Corica’s side will have logged minutes in the Sky Blues' penalty shootout win over Perth Glory in last year’s decider, while four of those seven were also present for their side’s 16/17 win over Melbourne Victory.
And that experience gap is just one of a number of narratives that can be spun of City as the underdogs heading into tomorrow.
Indicative of the success the club has had over several seasons, Sydney didn’t lose any players during the A-League’s pandemic break, whereas City said goodbye to Scottish defender Jack Hendry and Spanish star Markel Susaeta.
Compounding this, captain Scott Jamieson returned to Melbourne after a single game post-restart to be with his partner for the birth of the couple’s first child.
Furthermore, not only will Sydney retain home ground advantage for the contest as Premiers, City’s fan contingent – which, admittedly, isn’t the largest in the A-League already – has been thinned further by the travel restrictions placed on cross-border travel between Victoria and New South Wales.
“We are challengers in this final,” Mombaerts said on Saturday.
“They have all their players; we lost a lot of players. They play a home game, we are away. We were in quarantine. They also have a lot of experience in grand finals.
“We are in a position as the challenger. It’s like that.
“It’s good that the Grand Final has the first and second positions of the [A-League table], but we were the second position.”
Despite the difficulties they experienced in getting to their hub, City were nonetheless able to defeat their Sky Blue foes in their first-game following their release from quarantine; riding second-half goals from Craig Noone and Jamie Maclaren to a relatively straightforward victory.
It was one of two wins and a draw that the Citizens recorded following the A-League’s resumption, compared to the two draws, one win and three defeats that marked the Harboursiders’ return to play.
That trend, though, was turned on its head come finals time as Sydney cruised to a relatively comfortable 2-0 win over Perth Glory in their semi-final whereas City was forced to eke out a 2-0 win over Western United in a contest that, for vast periods, they were decidedly second best in.
Ultimately, it makes the form very difficult to read heading into Sunday evening.
“We know that we can do well against Sydney but it’s a cup game, it’s different,” Mombaerts said.
“I think, honestly, we have to play better if we want to expect something. We have to play better than we have done against Sydney and especially better than how we played the semi-final.
“I don’t think [Sydney] will change something because they are confident in their style – and they have to be confident in their style because they won the premiership.
“I’m not sure they want to [change their style], and I’m not sure they can change something.
“They are used to doing this in their 4-4-2 with a winger inside. They are used to this and I’m sure they don’t want to change.”
“[The Grand Final is] more mental, it’s more mentally. Every final the main dimension is mental. We have to be ready to play in this final, play at our best level it will be difficult to challenge Sydney.
“We have to be at our best level.”
Mombaerts indicated that his side was set to be fully fit heading into the contest, with the days following Wednesday's semi-final almost exclusively devoted to recovery.