Home Sports AFC Champions League: Mumbai City sign off with win, belief

AFC Champions League: Mumbai City sign off with win, belief

by thesquadron.in
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Minutes after his team was drubbed 6-0 by Al-Shabab FC over the weekend, Mumbai City FC head coach Des Buckingham sat in the post-match press conference stating that his players would be geared up in a couple of days to finish on a high. It sounded less like the usual we-will-bounce-back chatter and more a reiteration of belief in his side to drive home on a path in which they had already marked a few firsts.

They duly did so.

In their final match of the 2022 AFC Champions League (ACL) campaign, Mumbai City beat Iraq’s Air Force Club 1-0 in Riyadh on Tuesday night to pick up their second victory in a tournament and at a level they were playing for the first time. Diego Mauricio tapped in a rebound from goalkeeper Mohammed Mejbel’s save off a Bradden Inman shot resulting from a brilliant attacking move in the 31st minute.

The defence—exposed in the previous game—did a resolute job thereafter as Mumbai City completed the double over Air Force Club having earlier beaten them 2-1 for a first win by an Indian club in the competition.

The victory propelled Mumbai City to second in the four-team Group B, tied on seven points with the Iraqi club with a better head-to-head record. It still wasn’t enough for them to advance beyond the group stages as one of the best second-placed teams (their goal difference was -8). Still, Mumbai City’s twin victories and one draw is a significant step up from last year when FC Goa, the first Indian club in the elite Asian club tournament, signed off third with three draws and points.

“To play six games in 19 days, to show the way the players have played, to come away from the Champions League picking up seven points and to finish second in the group is a huge achievement—both for this football club and for football in India,” Buckingham said.

This was a relatively different group to the one that ensured Mumbai City got here by capturing the 2020-21 Indian Super League Shield. The squad lost some key overseas stars apart from the title-winning coach, Sergio Lobera. It was therefore all the more pleasing for Buckingham that his troops did not shy away from sticking to their style of football even on the biggest and most unfamiliar stage.

“I spoke about coming here and creating history. I didn’t want to sit back and defend and try not to lose games,” the 37-year-old Englishman said. “It was pleasing to see the players be brave, get on the ball and take the style of football we’ve seen in patches in the ISL to this level. And then not just compete at this level but also pick up results.”

Mumbai City took the plunge into the “exciting unknown” with a 3-0 defeat to Al-Shabab before beating Air Force Club. They then lost 1-0 and had a goalless draw with Al Jazira, a result which left the coach disappointed that his team took only one point than three. It highlighted a mindset shift within the group: that they could aim for much more than their primary objective of being the first Indian club in the ACL with a W.

A couple of pre-tournament friendlies, where Mumbai City beat UAE’s Al Ain FC and Al Hilal United in Abu Dhabi, set that shift in motion.

“I spoke to the players before the two friendly games; I said my experience working with national teams has been that players often wait till the first or second game to realise that they can compete. Those friendly games were important in that sense. We didn’t get the result in the first (ACL) game, but it set us up very well for the second game,” Buckingham said. “So when I talk about mindset shift, it’s firstly coming into the unknown but getting comfortable very quickly in it. And second, being positive in encouraging them to continue being brave.”

The couple of losses to table-toppers Al-Shabab—with nine goals conceded in them—showed players the cost of not being at the top of their game even in the slightest against a quality team at the higher level, “which we might get away with in the ISL”.

The club’s ISL leading scorer, Igor Angulo, missed the first four matches with a calf injury, forcing Buckingham to try different combinations and formations across the six matches. It also compelled other players to step up; Brazilian Mauricio, for example, whose two goals proved vital to go with Rahul Bheke’s winner against Air Force Club in the second game. The young Indians in the young squad too left a mark, the likes of Lallianzuala Chhangte, Lalengmawia Ralte (Apuia), Vikram Pratap Singh and the goalkeepers Mohammad Nawaz and Phurba Lachenpa, among others.

“I’ve a strong background working with this (young) age group of players, and it’s about giving them the freedom where they’re not worried about making mistakes,” Buckingham said. “They could go out and not only enjoy but also show what they’re capable of doing.”

Perhaps sums up Mumbai City’s overall Asian adventure.

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