Mumbai City FC head coach Des Buckingham is confident with his team's preparations as the Islanders welcome Bengaluru FC in the first leg of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) semi-final at the Mumbai Football Arena, in Mumbai, on Tuesday.

The fixture promises to be a spectacle, with two of the most in-form teams of the league going head to head. Mumbai City FC clinched the League Winners' Shield, while Bengaluru FC are only unbeaten team in 2023 and are on a record nine-match winning streak. The Blues won 1-0 in extra-time against Kerala Blasters FC in the knockouts to set up a semi-final clash against Mumbai City FC.

In the history of the Hero ISL, the two-legged semi-final ties have never been short of drama. With minimum 180 minutes of football to be played over two legs, the contest presents a chance for both sides to make amends in the reverse fixture. Buckingham expressed that his team would focus on one leg at a time in the semi-final and stated the team is in a good space after two weeks of preparation for the clash.

"I see this as two individual games. You have to plan for the 90 minutes you're about to face. Obviously, we know that the outcome of that 90 minutes could influence the second part, but there's no point in looking at the second part until the first part is done. So we'll approach this game in the same way we have done for the other games, which we've had two weeks now to plan, prepare and rest and recover. We've got everybody in a really good space. We'll take each game as it comes, the same as we did in the league, but it's important that we just look at this game in isolation to start with," Buckingham said in the pre-match press conference.

The first leg would be played at the backyard of League Shield winners. The Islanders have had the best home record in the league stage with six victories, three draws and only one defeat. Buckingham hailed the atmosphere created in Mumbai City FC's home stadium and how the players feel motivated with the fans backing the team.

"I've said this all season, especially not only the home crowd, I think it's the atmosphere when you come to the Mumbai Football Arena. Fans are a lot closer to the pitch and the atmosphere that is created is very different to the grounds. Not to say it's better, but it's very special. And I think anyone that's come to the ground whether it's home fans or away fans will say the same and it does have a big impact on what the players feel on the field because we certainly do from the dugouts. Fans are very important and it's so good to get to play in front of them this season as opposed to what was last year when we were in the bubble. We're looking forward to a sold-out Mumbai Football Arena to hopefully cheer us on against a very good Bengaluru FC team and one we will be ready for," Buckingham said.

Both sides have beaten each other during the league stages. The Islanders scored four goals past Simon Grayson's men in November. In the reverse fixture, the Blues handed the first defeat of the season to Mumbai City FC in a 2-1 win. Buckingham called for his team to continue performing to the best of their abilities and mentioned the result will take care of itself if they stick to what they do. 

"We can look at it as they were the team to beat us or we can go back to the format where we beat them at home. We've shown that we can stick true to what we believe in the way that we do things over a period of time. Performances firstly, and then you hope that the result follows, we've shown that over 20 games, 18 times. That was the case, regardless of the last game, when you put it in context. If we can do everything that we want to do and try to perform as well as we can, we hope that that's enough to then bring the results as well," he said.

The Blues have been on an unstoppable run. Placed ninth in the Hero ISL table at the end of 2022, Grayson's side have produced some stunning results since the turn of the year to finish fourth. Buckingham was aware of Bengaluru FC's quality and warned his team to be careful of how they set themselves in certain moments.

"When you look at their squad you know, it's a very good squad. I think it's probably one that has floated under the radar a little bit with the individuals and the quality that they have. Obviously, it's come to the fall of the last eight or nine games because they've got the results and they found a way that suits what they want to do. We've played them twice now and we played against them in the Durand Cup final as well. They've got a very clear way about how they want to play. So we need to be very careful about how we set ourselves up in certain moments," Buckingham concluded.

Lalengmawia Ralte - fondly known as Apuia - accompanied Buckingham in the pre-match press conference. The 22-year-old has been a regular in the playing eleven with 16 appearances in the league stage, contributing three goals in the process. Apuia recalled his goal against Bengaluru FC at the Mumbai Football Arena and spoke about performing collectively as a team. 

"I scored against them and I hope this time I could get some assists. The most important is the win for the team. I cannot focus on myself. The most important thing is the team and it will always be the team," Apuia said.

Being part of a midfield lined up with experienced players like Greg Stewart and Ahmed Jahouh, the youngster has been a vital cog for the Islanders with his impeccable work rate and reading of the game. He expressed his joy of playing alongside quality midfielders in the team and how it has helped him grow.

"It's a joy for me to play alongside these players. Everyone amongst them is one of the best players in India and competing against them, it helps me a lot. Even playing against (Ahmed) Jahouh sometimes, it feels good and to beat him, not only him but Greg (Stewart) as well. I'll not mention the others (laughs). It's a joy to train and play alongside them," Apuia said.

The semi-final clash will pit two talented young Indian midfielders against each other in Bengaluru FC’s Suresh Wangjam and Lalengmawia Apuia. The Mumbai City FC midfielder spoke about the qualities Wangjam possesses and how the approach for the fixture is going to stay the same as it has been for previous matches.

"He (Wangjam) is a hard-working guy, he runs a lot, he fights for the ball but for me, it's always the same approach. It doesn't matter whom we are going to play or whom am I going to stand against. I concentrate on myself what I can do and what is the best for the team, so the approach will be always the same to win the match and not concentrate on one particular player," Apuia concluded.