AFC Cup: Three league champs battle ‘favourites’ ATKMB
- Roy Krishna available for Kolkata giants who kick off against I-League winners Gokulam Kerala FC on Wednesday
Group D of the AFC Cup begins here on Wednesday with ATK Mohun Bagan (ATKMB) as favourites and league champions from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives out to prove that reputations don’t always decide football games. There will be three double-headers (May 18, 21 and 24) to choose the champions from south zone, one of the five in Asia’s second-tier competition.
ATKMB have been there. Last term, they topped a group that had Bengaluru FC, Maziya and Bashundhara Kings to make the inter-zonal semi-final with two wins and a draw. ATKMB can buy “20 times Gokulam Kerala including myself,” said coach Vincenzo Annese one day before the first competitive game between teams from ISL and I-League since 2019.
Emil Benny, who has come through the ranks at the club and whose goal on Saturday helped Gokulam Kerala FC (GKFC) become the first team to retain the I-League, said playing ATKMB would be a learning experience. Oscar Bruzon, coach of Bangladesh league winners Bashundhara Kings, said India’s higher Fifa rank and the number of national team players at ATKMB make them favourites.
For Juan Ferrando, this doesn’t translate into pressure but “good expectation”. That said, the ATKMB coach pointed out that while all the other teams are league winners, his side came third in ISL. He wasn’t in charge in 2021 but with the bulk of the squad being the same, ATKMB had trailed Bashundhara Kings and Maziya last term. “We were not behind two ISL clubs,” Bruzon said. His team drew against ATKMB and Bengaluru FC.
ATKMB are also the only team in this group whose league finished in March. Leaders Maziya and Basundhara Kings are in the middle of a season and GKFC ended theirs on a high last Saturday. That will be of some advantage, said Maziya’s Montenegrin head coach Miodrag Jesic. “But I am sure ATKMB have been readying for this tournament,” he said, with central defender Nemanja Kartal as interpreter.
Like Bashundhara Kings, Maziya have lost only once in the league. In Tana Dominguez, they have a playmaker who has represented Las Palmas in 129 games. “He loves having the ball, we need to avoid that,” said Bruzon who has coached in India and Maldives. Maziya also have St Vincent’s striker Cornelius Stewart who, in Bruzon’s words, “is not reducing his numbers.”
Including Brazilian attacking player Robson (also called Robinho), Bashundhara Kings and Maziya have retained most of the squad from last term. GKFC couldn’t but still won the I-League losing once in 18 rounds. “Only our skipper Sharif Mukhammad has experience of playing this tournament,” said Annese ahead of their Asian debut. “This will be a different level of football but let there be no wrong message: tomorrow we play to win.”
Johor Darul Ta’zim, Kitchee FC and BG Pathum United, who have qualified for the round of 16 in the Asian Champions League this season, are proof that often reputations don’t matter. Add Mumbai City FC to that list, said Bruzon. “There’s been a lot of progress in south Asia from when I first came to India in 2011,” he said.
With Roy Krishna available–he missed the qualifiers because of a death in the family–Ferrando didn’t say who among Tiri, Joni Kauko, Hugo Boumous and Carl McHugh would be omitted on Wednesday. Tournament regulations permit four foreign players, including one of Asian origin, meaning if ATKMB use their full quota, David Williams will be in the 18. Ferrando also said Sandesh Jhingan has recovered from injury and is back in training.
It’s only three games, so anything can happen, said Ferrando. The important thing in such situations is for players to “enjoy.” Because if they do, so do the fans, and that according to Ferrando is the only advantage ATKMB have.
How AFC Cup works
5 Number of zones in which teams are divided: West, South, ASEAN, Central and East. West and ASEAN have three groups, South and East one group and Central two. Indian teams are in South Zone, Group D. Zones with multiple groups will play zonal semi-finals (group winners and best second-placed team) and final. Zones with two groups will play zonal final.
39 Number of teams in group stage.
10 Number of groups. Each has four teams barring Group F in Central Asia which has three teams.
2 Teams from India. ATK Mohun Bagan came through qualifiers, Gokulam Kerala got direct berth by winning the 2020-21 I-League. South Zone is the only group with more than one team from the same member association.
1 The toppers from group D will qualify for the knockout stages. They will be called the zonal champion and qualify to the inter-zone semi-finals scheduled in September.
4 Zonal champions from South, Central, ASEAN and East will play in the inter-zone knockout semi-finals. The winners of the semi-finals will play in the inter-zone final, scheduled for October 5.
1 The winners of the inter-zone final will play the winners of the West Zone to decide AFC Cup champions on October 22.
Best performance by an Indian team: Bengaluru FC, runners-up in 2016.