AFC Champions League: Steep learning curve for debutants Mumbai City FC

Published on Apr 09, 2022 07:09 PM IST

The Indian club showed fight until a first-half penalty set them back, eventually losing 0-3 in their opening game to Al-Shabab FC in Riyadh on Friday.

Still from Mumbai City FC's AFC Champions League game.(Twitter/Mumbai City FC)
Still from Mumbai City FC's AFC Champions League game.(Twitter/Mumbai City FC)
ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai

In his pre-tournament media address, Mumbai City FC head coach Des Buckingham stressed on the word “smart football” while discussing his team’s playing style in the 2022 AFC Champions League (ACL). For about 30 minutes on their debut in the elite Asian club tournament against Al-Shabab FC in Riyadh on Friday, the 2020-21 Indian Super League champions showed glimpses of what Buckingham sought from his players before a penalty opened the floodgates and led to a 3-0 defeat.

Mumbai City goalkeeper Phurba Lachenpa pulled out many saves throughout the contest to resist Al-Shabab’s wave of attacks. But his challenge 36 minutes into it that brought down Carlos at the edge of the box led to a penalty. Buckingham questioned the decision but Ever Banega calmly converted. The experienced Argentine was equally clinical in scoring the second goal in the 68th minute. Substitute Turki Al Ammar made it 3-0 nine minutes later.

“Overall, I am happy with the performance. Not so much the result,” Buckingham said.

“In the first half especially, I thought we gave a good account of ourselves. We just lacked that cutting edge in the final third. The decision to give the penalty… I went back and saw it at half-time and I’m not convinced it’s a penalty. It’s borderline outside the box, and I’m not sure how much contact there is. For me, that was a big turning point for a team that worked extremely hard. But that’s no excuse for the second half.”

There was no debating the quality of the two second-half goals by Banega and Al Ammar. On both occasions the Mumbai City defence was outclassed. They provided space for Al-Shabab to flaunt some fine passes before executing the finish. Just the kind of lapse Buckingham had warned could prove costly for the team playing at this level for the first time.

“They were ruthless in front of the goal when they had their chances and we knew that would be the case,” the Englishman said. “We knew we weren’t going to have as much of the ball as we do in our own league, and it was important that we stayed connected. When we weren’t, they exposed us. The two goals in the second half highlights that.”

The gulf between the two sides was glaring even before kickoff. Though they had not played in the ACL group stage since 2015, Al-Shabab had reached the semi-finals in 2010 having played the tournament nine times previously. That’s more than even the number of seasons Mumbai City have competed in ISL. The difference in standards translated on to the field. Al-Shabab had 28 shots on goal, 12 of them on target. Mumbai City had none of the mere three shots they took in the match on target. That meant they could not make their 46% possession count.

Missing Angulo, Inman

It also didn’t help that Mumbai City couldn’t field striker Igor Angulo and Bradden Inman, the Australian attacking midfielder who was to fill their Asian foreign spot. Spaniard Angulo—he was this ISL season’s joint-second highest scorer with 10 goals—picked up a calf strain during training, while Inman tested positive for Covid-19 on landing in Saudi Arabia, having joined the squad only on match eve.

The team is already without Rowllin Borges, the experienced Indian midfielder. Despite being with the squad in Riyadh, he continues his rehabilitation and adds value to the leadership group, but won’t take part in any of their six games due to knee injury.

Next up for Mumbai City is Iraq's Air Force Sports Club (Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya) on Monday. Buckingham said the opening defeat does not alter their outlook. “The experience we take from this game puts us in a good stead. There are plenty of positives to take from that into the second game. It certainly doesn’t change our target: to come here and be the first Indian team to win at this level.”

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