Rahul Bheke interview: AFC Champions League will be the biggest challenge that I've faced in my career

Rahul Bheke is one of the most experienced players in the Mumbai City FC squad, having featured for Hero Indian Super League (ISL) sides like Kerala Blasters FC, and Bengaluru FC in the past. But, ahead of the 2021-22 Hero ISL season he joined his hometown club and now has the opportunity to be a part of the Islanders' first ever AFC Champions League campaign.

Earlier in the week, the 31-year-old sat down for an exclusive interview with the Hero ISL Media Team and expressed his emotions leading into the first match, the goal for MCFC going into the Champions League, key learnings from the Hero ISL season, and more!

Here are the excerpts from the interview:

What are your takeaways from Mumbai City FC's Hero ISL 2021-22 season?

It was a mixed bag of a season for us. We started really well but we trailed off in the middle. In the end, we didn’t do enough to be where we wanted to be on the table. We look at this season as a learning curve for all of us. We want to assess what we did wrong but also what we did right and come back stronger for the next season.

How have the preparations been coming along for the AFC Champions League?

The preparations have been very good. We have our plans set as laid out by the coach and we’ve had a chance to work on them in two practice games as well. The results were positive for us not only in terms of the score but also understanding and implementing the style of football the coach wants us to play in the Champions League. The mood is upbeat and everyone is excited to start our Champions League campaign.

Are there any targets you’ve set for yourself with regards to the AFC Champions League?

Our target is that we want to win games in the Champions League and we want to become the first Indian club to do so. Individually, I hope I can perform well for the team not just in defense but possibly score as well.

You have prior experience of playing in AFC competition. How is it a different challenge from the Hero ISL?

In AFC competitions, it’s about the kind of clubs and players you play against from different countries and different footballing cultures. In terms of the competition, there probably isn’t much difference. It all comes down to how you approach each game and each opposition. Having said that, the Champions League will of course be a bigger challenge than anything I have faced before but I am sure it will be an exciting one.

A landmark in the club’s history to play their first-ever AFC Champions League, how’s the mood in the dressing room like?

What I’ve seen since I’ve come back from the national team is that the approach from everyone is very positive. Everyone at the club is excited and eager to give their best at this stage and it’s evident from the way we have been training. In fact, it doesn’t seem like we are towards the end of our season. The energy and mindset in the team and in training is almost like it is the start of a season.

What are the areas of improvements you’re focusing on in order to be at your best in the first game of the AFC Champions League? What has the team been working on in the post-ISL break?

I think it will be very important in the Champions League that we remain disciplined and play as a unit, as a team. Whether we are defending or attacking, it’s important that we keep our shape and structure and that’s what we have been working on these last 3 weeks and we have seen plenty of positives in training and in our friendly games as well.

From a kid playing football in Navi Mumbai to now playing the Champions League. It's been a great growth path. How does this make you feel? What is your message to the younger players in your team who are playing at such a big stage?

It’s a great feeling to be playing in the Champions League, especially with my hometown club. I think this should be an inspiration for the youngsters from Mumbai and Navi Mumbai that if you work hard enough, no dream is too distant. I believe that if I could do it, the coming generations certainly can as well. It’s about believing in yourself, being patient, working hard for your goals and most importantly, keep growing as a footballer and as a person.

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