Preview: ATK Mohun Bagan face their toughest AFC Cup challenge yet in FC Nasaf

ATK Mohun Bagan eye a place in the AFC Cup inter-zone final when they take on Uzbekistan’s FC Nasaf in their inter-zone semi-final at the Markaziy Stadium on Wednesday.

The Mariners last played in August in their Group D-South Zone campaign in the Maldives and despite insufficient training in the lead-up, they gave a great account of themselves. They beat fellow Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) side Bengaluru FC 2-0, Maldives’ Maziya Sports & Recreation 3-1 and drew 1-1 with Bangladesh’s Bashundhara Kings to top the group and advance to the inter-zone semi-final.

However, the tie against the Uzbek side is going to be their toughest challenge yet. While they had only a week-long training camp in Dubai ahead of the all-important game, their opponents have been busy with the Uzbekistan Professional Football League since March early this year where they play once every week.

Since March 13 when they featured in the 2020-21 Hero ISL final against eventual winners Mumbai City FC, ATK Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, have played just three games.

And this is the reason why FC Nasaf striker Andrija Kaluderovic – who paired with ATK Mohun Bagan forward Roy Krishna at Wellington Phoenix in the A-League a few years ago – is confident of his team’s chances.

“If we win against ATK Mohun Bagan we have another home game, so we have a good chance to be in the final,” Kaluderovic, who also spent a season in the Hero ISL with Delhi Dynamos FC in 2018-19, told ahead of the game.

“I think we’re the favourites in this game. We play in the league every week, we’re in good form …they didn’t have a league game for a long time.

“We have an advantage – but this can mean nothing, maybe they’ll play their best game, you never know, but if you ask me, we are the favourites for this game,” he added.

In a big setback to the 2020-21 Hero ISL finalists, attacking midfielder Hugo Boumous won’t be part of this match on account of injury. His place in the squad was taken by central midfielder Joni Kauko. Michael Soosairaj and Prabir Das are the other two notable inclusions in the squad. Boumous had a great outing in the Maldives last month, especially against Maziya Sports & Recreation.   

Be that as it may, Kauko is a Finland international and recently featured in Euro 2020. He is a mine of talent; it just remains to be seen if he has had enough time to gel with his new team-mates. He can be a decisive factor on Wednesday. Besides Kauko, there is 2020-21 Hero of the League Krishna, Carl McHugh and David Williams who can run the opposition ragged on their day.

There is a lot at stake, and while the Uzbek side goes into the contest with a slight edge, the presence of shrewd tactician Antonio Lopez Habas will give the Mariners’ fans a lot of hope. All these years in the Hero ISL, he has shown that through just resilience a lot can be achieved. Expect him as well as his players to come out firing on all cylinders!

The winners of the match will play Lee Man of Hongkong in the inter-zone final scheduled to be played on October 20. The championship final will be played on November 5 between the winners of that game and the winners of the West Zone final.

ATK Mohun Bagan squad:

Amrinder Singh, Avilash Paul, Arsh Shaikh, Pritam Kotal, Ashutosh Mehta, Carl McHugh, Subhasish Bose, Sumit Rathi, Joni Kauko, Lenny Rodrigues, Liston Colaco, Prabir Das, Michael Soosairaj, Bidyananda Singh, N Engson Singh, SK Sahil, Ravi Bahadur Rana, Abhishek Dhananjay Suryavanshi, Roy Krishna, David Williams, Manvir Singh and Kiyan Nassiri.

Kick-off time: 8:30 pm (IST)

Live telecast: Star Sports Network

Streaming: Disney+ Hotstar VIP and JioTV

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