Can BFC lift the AFC Cup?

After becoming the first-ever Indian club to reach the AFC Cup final, to not capture the title by beating Iraq’s Air Force Club at the Suhaim Bin Hamad Stadium here on Saturday, might even be deemed a disappointment for Bengaluru FC.

The Bengaluru FC players at a training session in Doha.

In early April, Bengaluru FC was struggling to salvage its AFC Cup campaign. Languishing in third place with three points from three games, it badly needed a win against the visiting Ayeyawady United. Ahead of that match, the then coach Ashley Westwood had said that the primary target was to reach the last eight, an improvement on the round-of-16 finish the previous year.

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For a club all of three years old, it seemed a decent enough expectation. However, in the time since then, the club has grown to such heights that, after becoming the first-ever Indian club to reach the AFC Cup final, to not capture the title by beating Iraq’s Air Force Club at the Suhaim Bin Hamad Stadium here on Saturday, might even be deemed a disappointment.

“There is pressure on us,” said defender John Johnson, who has been with the club since its inception. “We haven’t done anything yet by getting to the final. It’s good to get to the final but we have to go and win the trophy.”

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In reality though, the run to the final has done a lot. For long, Indian football has craved for recognition at the Asian level. That a fledgling club has been able to put it on such a pedestal should indeed be a matter of pride. This is no fairy tale but the result of one meticulous step after another.

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When BFC beat the much-fancied Johor Darul Ta'zim in the semifinal, Sunil Chhetri and Eugeneson Lygndoh, two players who have had as great a hand in the club’s achievement as anybody else, combined to score three of the four goals over two legs. On Saturday, against a physically intimidating side like Air Force Club — it has lost only once in 11 Cup games — their creative brains need to be at their sharpest.

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The club, though, will miss the services of first-choice goalkeeper Amrinder Singh, who is suspended after picking up two yellow cards in the semifinal legs. Lalthuammawia Ralte, whose last game was the one against Ayeyawady, will deputise. "Key midfielder Cameron Watson is down with stomach ache but manager Albert Roca expected him to recover in time."

For > Air Force Club, too, the match presents a chance to put Iraq’s stamp on the continental scene after fellow Iraqi club Arbil fell short twice in the competition, finishing runner-up, both in 2012 and 2014. Coming as it does at a time of severe unrest in Iraq — the club has played all its home games in Doha this year — a victory which can help lift the gloom even slightly will be welcome.

“My team is ready,” said Air Force Club’s assistant coach Mehdi Jassim. “We have analysed their [previous] matches and prepared well. The Bengaluru team is very good, yes. If it has reached the final, it should be good. They have players with good technique and dribbling skills and they are good with the head, too. But we are ready.”

Its readiness though will be severely tested. It does have the competition’s top-scorer in Hammadi Ahmed, who has found the net in every match so far, totalling 15 goals. But it will miss the influential midfielder Bashar Resan, who scored the winner in the semifinal second leg against Lebanese club Al Ahed before being sent off. Hammadi’s strike partner Samal Saeed, who has started 10 of the 11 matches, is also suspended.

Yet, on paper, Air Force Club looks the better of the two. But if matches had been decided on paper, BFC wouldn’t be where it is now.

Match kicks off at 9.30 p.m. IST.

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