Mumbai City FC’s head coach Des Buckingham believes his side can produce a positive result and also can become the first-ever Indian club to register a victory in the prestigious AFC Champions League as they prepare to face Al-Shabab FC in the group stage of the competition at Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Friday.

The Islanders group also consists of UAE’s Al Jazira and three-time AFC Cup winners Air Force Club of Iraq. Although Al-Jazira and Al-Shabab sit in third and fourth places in their leagues respectively, this group resembles a snakepit for the. If they are to qualify for the playoffs, they must replicate their title-winning form from the 2020-2021 Hero ISL season. 

Al-Shabab themselves have a rich AFC Champions League history and have made it to the knockout stages six times. These appearances include one semi-final (2010) and two quarter-finals (2006, 2013). With capable playmakers and goalscorers among them, Mumbai City head coach Buckingham will have the daunting task to figure out their Achilles’ Heel.

Ahead of Mumbai City FC’s clash against Al-Shabab, coach Buckingham addressed the media during the pre-match press conference.

What would be a successful campaign for you in terms of the AFC Champions League?

This is only the second time a club from India has competed at this level after FC Goa last year. They picked up three draws, three points across that period and they showed what Indian players and Indian teams can do at this level.

So for me, we want to try and do something no other Indian club has done before, which for me, is to win a game at this competition. And we take it from there.

But it’s very important that we don’t look too far ahead in the tournament. We have got a very important game against an excellent side in two days' time, but for me it would be trying to create our own relative success in history and that would be for me trying to win a game at this level.

Are we going to see a different Mumbai City FC in the Champions League with respect to the playing style that the team has employed so far, or have you worked with the team to stick with the one they’ve had for the season and continue to build on that?

Yes, we've had two good opportunities to practice a couple of things in terms of our playing style. When and how we want to go about or different plans we may have to come up with against different teams, you know, so we've had two games and we practiced a couple of things whether or not we use them to start with or whether or not we go to them as part of the game plan during the game.

There’s certainly different things we’ve worked on and the players as you’ve seen, you know one from the results to the performances within those games. The players are very clear on what that looks like as well as being able to build up on what we’ve seen within the ISL.

Two wins in the two pre-season fixtures, how are you preparing for the game against Al-Shabab FC?

We had two good friendlies, Al Ain especially, we know they are an excellent team and have been consistent, so they played an extremely strong team, and were a wonderful side against us.

But what it gave us is an opportunity for our players here to firstly see the level of competition and see the level of the teams that are competing in the league, and also give the players an opportunity to test themselves against those players that they will come up against.

So, the preparation in that game was excellent. The second game that we played gave us an opportunity to work on some shape and structure that we’ve been trying to tidy up and make sure we can take into the Champions League with us, and again the player performed extremely well.

Both of those [games] are going to serve a great purpose for us going not just into our first game but for the six across the Champions League because as I said, the players and teams we’re coming up against are very good teams.

We know we're going to have to be smart, to pick our moments to do what we want to do, but I feel with the ISL season and the learnings from that as well as the last two weeks that we've done as much as we can to prepare as well as we can for what we're going into.        

Considering the playing style in Asia is completely different than that in India, will Mumbai City FC play their best game or will it be more of a defensive approach?

It’s interesting when you come to different competitions that you certainly haven’t competed before because you have to look at what’s happened before to give you some context and we’ve certainly watched all the games last year, FC Goa coming and competing in this competition.

As a reference point, Goa has been in the last two seasons, a team that out possesses any team in the ISL. They finished top, having 68% possession across the average possession in the season, but when they came to the Champions League, that dipped down to 39%.

And there’s a whole range of measures that we look at for that. So you have to be smart about how you approach these games because they are very different but that doesn’t mean we defend for ninety minutes, we’ve got a way that we need to be smart about how we defend. But we also need to put a structure in place that allows us to show what we can do as well, and that’s certainly something we spent a lot of time in the last 2.5 weeks looking to make sure that we get those opportunities in the upcoming games.

How did you approach the team after a not so successful Hero ISL campaign, coming into the AFC Champions League?

At the end of the ISL season, the players had a ten-day break and I think that was good. There's a lot of things that come up as part of that season and there's a lot of reasons as to why we've ended up finishing fifth rather than where we actually wanted to.

It is important to know that the players were in a bubble for six months and players needed to be mentally fresh, if nothing more, to be able to go back and spend time with families and reset themselves and the same as the staff.

So, the players had that ten-day break and I think that really helped because when we all got together again back in Abu Dhabi, it wasn't so much reflecting for the playing group and the staff group on what just happened, it was about looking forwards because you can't look too far behind, you can't look too far forwards.

Has Rowllin Borges returned back to the first team after his injury? What are your expectations of his contribution to the team? 

Unfortunately, Rowllin won’t take to the field in any of the six games. So Rowllin has joined the group, to firstly, make sure you can get the best rehabilitation that you can see.

His time frame is still one or two months away from returning to the pitch in terms of training and competing. But we wanted to bring him here for two reasons. The first was to make sure he could continue his rehabilitation without staff and get him back as quickly as possible and as well as we can because he’s a very important player to us and will continue to be in the next season.

And the other is the role that he plays within our group. He’s a vice-captain with Mandar [Rao Dessai] and plays a significant role in helping the dynamic of our group and he’s certainly a player that we want in and around the group that's got a lot of good experiences, that not just the senior players help contribute towards, but the young players certainly look to.