Three domestic sides will be featuring in this year’s AFC club tournaments.
The Indian Super League (ISL) teams are busy preparing for their upcoming continental clashes in the AFC Champions League and also in the AFC Cup. FC Goa made history last year by winning the ISL League Winners’ Shield and becoming the first Indian football club to directly qualify for the Champions League group stage.
A lot has changed for the Gaurs since then, but they will be looking forward to relishing this unique experience. Juan Ferrando and his men begin their campaign on April 14th against Qatar Stars League outfit Al-Rayyan. While Iran Pro League outfit Persepolis are the other team in this group, as they wait for the playoffs between Al Wahda and Al Zawraa to make it to the same group.
Meanwhile, ATK Mohun Bagan have also qualified for the group stage of the AFC Cup and are waiting for Bengaluru FC to join them through the playoffs. The Mariners have had a tough season in ISL where they came second best twice. Therefore, they will be eager to go deep in the continental tournament. Bengaluru FC have also made some changes in the managerial side of things and will be looking forward to a fruitful AFC Cup campaign.
AFC Champions League: FC Goa
It goes without saying that it won’t be easy for the Gaurs as they will be experiencing a different level of challenge at Asia’s elite club competition. Teams from Qatar, Iran and other West Asian nations won’t go easy on them both in terms of physicality and also technically.
Persepolis has to be the club to watch out for as they came out second best in the previous AFC Champions League campaign, beaten by Ulsan Hyundai in the final. The Iranian team is renowned all over the globe and considering their current form, they are second in the Persian Gulf Pro League only behind Sepahan on goal difference. The champions of Iran have a horde of national team players like Hossein Kanaanizadegan, Ahmad Nourollahi and Hamed Lak to name a few. They are considered as one of the strongest teams in Asia and are contenders to win the competition so it will be a great experience for FC Goa to even play against them.
From Iran, we come to Qatar where Al-Rayyan are third in the Qatar Stars League. Al-Rayyan have some strong foreign players like Yacine Brahimi who once played for FC Porto and has made 56 appearances for the Algeria national team. Defender Gabriel Mercado has represented Argentina 24 times and been with clubs like Sevilla, River Plate, etc. and forms a vital cog in defence for the Qatari outfit. Ivorian forward Yohan Boli is another player who can hurt FC Goa as he has scored 10 goals in the Qatar Stars League this season. Overall, they are too strong a team to not through to the knockout rounds. If they play to their potential, they may even challenge Persepolis for the top spot in Group E.
Lastly, coming to the teams in the playoffs, Al Wahda are eight in the Arabian Gulf Pro League, but have the capability to surprise the other teams. They have a lot of firepower in the form of Syrian winger Omar Khribin and veteran UAE midfielder Ismail Matar. Their opponents Al Zawraa are also no pushovers as they are third in the Iraqi Premier League and with their current form, they will look to pose a big challenge in the playoffs.
With all three possible teams from top Asian nations, this will be a very different experience for FC Goa. While they will be eager to go out there and express themselves, it will be really tough for Ferrando’s men considering the quality they will be up against. However, they too have some experienced men in their ranks. Centre-back James Donachie has previously had the taste of AFC Champions League and will need to be vocal in the defence along with Ivan Gonzalez.
In the attack too, despite their age, Igor Angulo and Alberto Noguera will have to take the mantle to lead the relatively young side. The challenge that FC Goa face in the ACL will also provide them a boost in Indian football.
AFC Cup: ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC
ATK Mohun Bagan are in Group D along with the Champions of Bangladesh Bashundhara Kings and Maldivian outfit Maziya Sports Club. Bengaluru FC are waiting in the second preliminary round where they will face the winner of Tribhuvan Army FC (Nepal) and SL Police SC (Sri Lanka). If the Blues cross that hurdle, then they will be tipped against the winner of Abahani Dhaka (Bangladesh) and the winner of the preliminary round 1 match between Club Eagles (Maldives) and Thimphu City FC (Bhutan).
Despite the Bangladesh Premier League getting abandoned for the pandemic, Bashundhara Kings look like a fierce team. The reigning champions from the previous season can be a huge threat for the Mariners and even for Bengaluru FC should they qualify for the group stage. The Kings’ Spanish coach Oscar Bruzon is no stranger to Indian football as he was previously with Sporting Club de Goa and later became the assistant coach of Mumbai City FC and worked under Nicolas Anelka. In fact, Bruzon even had a stint in the Dhivehi Premier League with New Radiant and therefore, he will have some tricks up his sleeve for Maziya as well.
One advantage which Maziya will get that they have their league ongoing and therefore the players will be more in the groove during the AFC Cup matches, unlike Indian and Bangladeshi clubs where the season has already ended. Also, Maziya are unbeaten in 10 fixtures in the Dhivehi Premier League and they will look to carry that form to the AFC Cup. The Maldivian outfit can come up with a surprise any time just like last season when they knocked out Bengaluru FC in penalties in the playoffs round.
The Blues will be wary of that this time around as teams like Abahani Dhaka and others can be very tricky. This will also be Marco Pezzaiuoli’s first assignment as the head coach of Bengaluru FC and therefore, a lot of people are excited to see how they fare at the continental stage.
All in all, for ATK Mohun Bagan, if they can hold most of their team together from this season, they should be in good stead to qualify from this group. With Antonio Lopez Habas extending for another year and making it clear that the focus will be on AFC Cup, the Mariners are up for a big campaign in Asia. For Bengaluru FC, it is like starting a new journey with a new coach and also with some new players. They will have to take their first few steps with caution and once they find their mojo, they can be the team to be reckoned with in this group.