Preview: Bengaluru FC look to seal final AFC Cup Group D-South Zone spot with win against Club Eagles
There is a lot at stake when 2018-19 Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) champions Bengaluru FC take on Club Eagles in their AFC Cup play-off tie at the National Stadium in Male, Maldives on Sunday. The winners of the contest will join 2020-21 Hero ISL finalists ATK Mohun Bagan, Maldives’ Maziya Sports & Recreation and Bangladesh’s Bashundhara Kings in Group D (South Zone) which kicks off on August 18, followed by two more matchdays on August 21 and August 24.
In fact, the winners of Sunday’s game will play the Mariners on Wednesday in the first game of the group. The play-off tie was originally scheduled for May 11 but had to be postponed on account of the deteriorating Covid-19 situation in the Maldives.
Bengaluru FC would definitely be under pressure going into the contest in light what transpired for them in the last Hero ISL season: they finished seventh which was the first time that they didn’t qualify for the semi-finals since joining the league in 2017.
They rang a lot of changes thereafter. They brought in a new head coach in Marco Pezzaiuoli as well as nine new players, namely Alan Costa, Rohit Kumar, Jayesh Rane, Yrondu Musavu-King, Danish Farooq, Harmanpreet Singh, Sarthak Golui, Prince Ibara and Bidyashagar Singh.
In his first game at the helm in what was their AFC Cup Preliminary Round 2 clash in April earlier this year, Pezzaiuoli oversaw a 5-0 demolition of Nepal’s Tribhuvan Army FC to reach the play-off. But Club Eagles are not going be a pushover by any means even though the Blues appear to have a better squad and a significant AFC Cup experience, particularly in 2016 when they reached the final.
Bengaluru FC are like a well-oiled machine and boast some of the most talented domestic talents in India. Suresh Wangjam, 2020-21 AIFF Men’s Emerging Footballer of the Year, and Ashique Kuruniyan will be the cynosure of all eyes. So will be captain Sunil Chhetri who seems to be getting better with age and Gurpreet Singh Sindhu, arguably the number one goalkeeper in the country. Then there is the foreign trio of Cleiton Silva – who scored a brace against Tribhuvan Army FC -- Costa and Musavu-King who can take the wind out of any opposition’s sails on their day.
“We are missing very few players for the game against Club Eagles. Prince Ibara has an infection and he hasn’t joined the team, Edmund Lalrindika has a back injury and Harmanpreet Singh has a muscle issue …I hope we make it to the Group Stage,” Pezzaiuoli said at the pre-match press conference.
Chettri, who accompanied the gaffer to the event, meanwhile, said: “We are very happy to be here. A lot of people have worked hard to make this tournament and match happen. We had a really good four weeks of pre-season, made some new signings and we’re now in Maldives where the hospitality has been very good.
“We’re really thankful that we can finally play a match, and we are really looking forward to the game. We are just focusing on our team, and as players we are all eager to fight for a place in the first XI and give our coach a selection headache.”
The Eagles won their Preliminary Round 1 clash against Bhutan’s Thimphu City FC 2-0 in April to set up a Round 2 encounter with Bangladesh’s Abahani Limited Dhaka. However, the Bangladeshi club had to forfeit their game as they couldn’t host it in time due to the Covid-19 situation in their country.
Club Eagles, under the guidance of head coach Mohamed Shaazly, also have plenty of firepower in their ranks. Mohamed Naim is one such player who the Blues will look to subdue. They have also a seasoned goalkeeper in Mohammad Taha and a seasoned defender in Elsayed Mahmoud. Ali Ashfaq, Akram Abdul Ghanee, Ali Fasir, Mohamed Arif, Ismail Easa, Ahmed Hassan and Mohamed Faisal are some of the other important names that the Blues will be wary of. While Pezzaiuoli’s men will fancy their chances against the Eagles, they will do well to remember that last year they were shown the door by another Maldivian team -- Maziya Sports & Recreation -- in the play-off.
Bengaluru FC squad:
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Lalthuammawia Ralte, Sharon Padattil, Lara Sharma
Defenders: Pratik Chaudhari, Wungngayam Muirang, Ajith Kumar, Ashique Kuruniyan, Parag Srivas, Yrondu Musavu-King, Alan Costa, Sarthak Golui, Biswa Darjee
Midfielders: Suresh Wangjam, Jayesh Rane, Danish Farooq, Rohit Kumar, Muhammad Inayath, Namgyal Bhutia, Ajay Chhetri
Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Udanta Singh, Cleiton Silva, Roshan Singh Naorem, Siva Sakthi, Akashdeep Singh, Bidyashagar Singh, Leon Augustine, Harmanpreet Singh
Kick-off time: 8.30 pm (IST)