Odisha FC will start its international journey taking on the form and formidability of the Indian Super League champion Mohun Bagan Super Giant in the South zone group-D league fixture at the Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar on Tuesday.
Mohun Bagan SG, which previously made it to the inter-zone semifinals (in 2022), is the favourite but a rejuvenated Odisha FC is looking to carve out a niche under the guidance of new coach Sergio Lobera.
Mohun Bagan, which has built on the formidable legacy of being one of the oldest football clubs of the continent, will be looking to continue its fine run in the season which started with lifting the Durand Cup crown for the record 17th time.
Odisha FC, which received a direct entry to the group league stage as the Super Cup champion, would be looking to make its maiden entry in the continental championship a memorable one.
The Bhubaneswar-based side has invested appropriately ahead of the new season to prepare an impressive roster that could take on the best in the business. In fact, Odisha FC is the newcomer in the continental competition which otherwise sees the return of the three teams - Bashundhara Kings (Bangladesh), Maziya Sports and Recreation Club (Maldives) and Mohun Bagan SG – from the previous year.
“We are ready to take the challenge with excitement. The team had a good pre-season and the players are ready for the action. Hopefully we will get a good result playing at home tomorrow,” Sergio Lobera said on the eve of the match.
With the AFC Cup tournament regulations allowing six foreigners to take the field, both the teams will be looking to make good use of their imports.
Odisha FC has got an impressive international shopping list securing the services of Ahmed Jahouh, Mourtada Fall, Roy Krishna and Cy Goddard, who joined Diego Mauricio, the Brazilian forward continuing with the side following a good performance in the previous season.
And with Lobera, who won the league ISL double (league shield and the title) for Mumbai City FC in the 2020-21 season, at the helm, Odisha FC will be hoping to achieve bigger feats this season.
“We know we are going to play one of the best teams in India. They have very good players and won many titles. We have respect for all the teams, but we do not fear anyone. We have good players, and we believe in our ability. We hope to show that on the pitch,” Lobera added.
Mohun Bagan SG arsenal has already proved its worth winning the Durand Cup, where the team beat the ISL heavyweights like Mumbai City FC, FC Goa and traditional rival East Bengal to lift the crown.
Meanwhile, the team also successfully crossed the AFC Cup play-off stage (which Odisha FC did not have to play) by beating Nepal’s Machhindra FC and Bangladesh’s Abahani Dhaka by identical 3-1 margin. The great start to the season seems to be dampened a bit by injury to key players.
Mohun Bagan will be missing the services of its express winger Ashique Kuruniuyan, who has been ruled out for the rest of the season after suffering a knee injury during his stint with the national team in the recent King’s Cup competition in Thailand. Even its full back Subhasish Bose appears uncertain after sustaining an injury during practice.
But with the likes of the India international Anirudh Thapa, Sahal Abdul Samad, Asish Rai, Anwar Ali looking in good form, Mohun Bagan coach Juan Ferrando will be hoping that it will form an effective partnership with the impressive international cast – Hugo Boumous, Dimitri Petratos, Jason Cummings, Brendan Hamill, Armando Sadiku and Hector Yuste – to continue with the momentum.
“We are happy with the Durand Cup win but that happened two weeks ago. We would now like to focus on the present which is the AFC Cup and look to put our best against a very strong side like Odisha FC. We have a very good squad and we have to keep your focus to see that we get a good result after 90 minutes,” Ferrando said with a note of caution.
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