New-look ATK Mohun Bagan, Bengaluru FC meet in AFC Cup opener
- Golden opportunity to establish the club on the map of Asia, says Bagan striker Roy Krishna.
ATK Mohun Bagan’s bid to being noticed in Asia begins on Wednesday with the 2021 AFC Cup tie against Bengaluru FC in Male. The Indian teams are in a South Asia zone group that also has Bangladesh’s Basundhara Kings and Maldives’ Maziya Sports and Recreation Club. One team will qualify to next month’s inter-zone playoff semi-final.
Both teams have reinforced rosters after the last Indian Super League (ISL) where ATK Mohun Bagan finished runners-up and Bengaluru FC were seventh, their worst-ever showing. That their group was deferred due to Bengaluru FC breaching the bio-secure bubble in Male last May has given the teams more time to bolster squads.
Defensive midfielder Joni Kauko, who played for Finland in Euro 2020, won’t be available for Bagan because of national team commitments. Sandesh Jhingan too isn’t part of the squad as he is trying to get a club in Croatia. But the Kolkata club has made some big ticket signings who will be. Creative midfielder Hugo Boumous and goalie Amrinder Singh from reigning ISL champions Mumbai City FC have travelled to Maldives as has Liston Colaco, the inverted winger whose form with Hyderabad FC got him a national team call-up, and Ashutosh Mehta who played for semi-finalists NorthEast United in 2020-21. Mehta was a key part of the Mohun Bagan team that won the 2019-20 I-League which sealed this AFC Cup berth before they got a new identity.
“This shows that they want to win the Indian Super League and the AFC Cup,” said Marco Pezzaiuoli, the Bengaluru FC coach. Bagan talisman Roy Krishna isn’t looking that far but the Fijian poacher and ISL7 Golden Ball winner has said the “AFC Cup is a golden opportunity to establish the club on the map of Asia…Our first goal is to go to the next round.” There the winners of the Central Asia zone tie between Uzbekistan’s FC Nasaf and Turkmenistan’s Ahal FK will be waiting.
Pezzaiuoli is among the raft of changes at Bengaluru FC, the only Indian team to have played the final of this competition. The German has been a technical director at Eintracht Frankfurt and succeeded former Bundestrainer Joachim Loew at Karlsruher FC in 2000. Jayesh Rane, whose goal on Sunday helped them beat Eagles FC 1-0 and make the group stage, has joined from Bagan, creative midfielder Danish Farooq from Real Kashmir and wide midfielder Harmanpreet Sigh and defender Sarthak Golui from SC East Bengal. The team that leaked 28 goals in ISL7 --- only two sides conceded more in the 11-team league -- have also recruited centre-backs Alan Costa from Brazil and Yrondu Musavu-King from Gabon.
Both teams also have players who have been around for some time. Krishna, David Williams and Carl McHugh are in their third season for Bagan. Bengaluru FC have Sunil Chhetri, who signed a new two-year deal at the club he joined in 2013, along with goalie Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, winger Udanta Singh who have been at the club since 2017 and 2013 respectively.
Under coach Antonio Lopez Habas, ATK Mohun Bagan did the double on Bengaluru FC in ISL7 and overcame a 0-1 deficit to beat them 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals in 2019-20. “(But) There has been a difference regarding their (Bengaluru FC’s) strength,” said the Spanish coach who will start his third straight season --- and fourth overall --- on Wednesday.
Bagan have trained in Kolkata for two weeks before flying out on Saturday. Bengaluru FC have played twice to get this far, beating Nepal’s Tribhuwan Army Club 5-0 in the first round of qualifiers in April and playing Eagles in the Maldives. Pezzaiuoli though does not think that is an advantage pointing out instead that there has been a “short recovery for the team.”
Runners-up in 2016, Bengaluru FC are the only Indian team to have got out of the group stages since. But in 2020, even they lost the playoff to qualify for the group stage before Covid-19 forced the edition to be scrapped. ATK have never played in the AFC Cup and Mohun Bagan survived the group only once, in 2016. Maldives’ champions Maziya are the most experienced. Including 2020, this will be their eighth successive appearance. But they have never got out of the group. Basundhara Kings go into their first full AFC Cup having won the Bangladesh league on August 9 with Brazilian Robson Azevado da Silva, also known as Robinho, scoring 19 goals in 20 league games.