After a testing Indian Super League (ISL) campaign, where Mumbai City FC lost its way and finished outside the top-four, Des Buckingham’s men came into the AFC Champions League running low on momentum. To add to that, its top-scorer Igor Angulo was carrying a calf injury, reducing him to the sidelines for the most of the group stage, and midfielder Brad Inman contracted COVID-19 twice in the lead-up.
Despite these obstacles, Mumbai City’s maiden tryst in the AFC Champions League has been largely memorable. Pitted against the best teams from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE, in challenging conditions and a rigorous schedule, the Islanders have pulled off a historic win and a draw thus far, with a game to go.
Buckingham, who is managing a senior professional team for the first-time in his career, explained the switch in mindset coming into the competition. “When you come into something you have never been to before, that can be an air of the unknown, which is scary and also exciting. The way we have tried to approach and embrace it is that of excitement. These players have been in a bio-bubble, day in and day out, and have come to a country, where nobody's been to before.
“There are a lot of challenges and unknowns to come in to. I spoke to the players before the two friendlies, that they can compete against them because we have our own strengths compared to the other teams and a very clear way of what we want to do. We showcased it in the friendly games and that set us up for the first game but we didn’t get the result, but it set us up for the second game, where we did get the result,” said Buckingham.
‘Continue to adapt’
After a 3-0 loss against Al-Shabab, Mumbai City became the first Indian club to achieve a win in the Champions League with a 2-1 win over Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya. In the process, Buckingham achieved his primary target for the competition. Two defeats and a draw have since followed, which has ruled it out of contention for the next round, but Mumbai City has plenty of positives to take on board.
“Igor’s calf injury meant we needed to adapt our game style. We had players arrive here with COVID so we needed to allow them time to recover and get them to the level to which they could perform. We set up in three different ways across five games, in terms of our shape, structure and adaptability to get success both with and without the ball. After the second game against Al-Jazira, we were disappointed not to come away with a win rather than the draw. We have created chances and the difference between the teams at this level has been the conversion of the chances. Adding the quality in the final third, which is the missing piece, that can be the massive difference at this level. The learnings will be continue to adapt to get the best out of the group we have available and adding the final piece – making a difference in the scoreboard,” said the 37-year-old.
While Mumbai City had an aggregate of two goals against two in three matches against Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya and Al-Jazira, it conceded nine goals in the defeats to Al-Shadab. When analysing what Mumbai City needs to do to bridge the competitive gap to the Saudi Arabian side, Buckingham said, “We need to be at our best. Al-Shabab are one of the favourites and have a wonderful history in this competition. We need to be on top of our game against any team in the CL and not just physically. We can get away with some small things in the ISL. For example, how we press or how we set up defensively, and if one or two don’t quite get it quite right, then the players at this level can see that and take advantage of it. It’s about being at our best and if we are at our best, then it’ a matter of when we are in possession, we show what we can do. We have a way of playing and we won’t change it no matter the competition.”
Mumbai City finishes its season with the final group game against Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya on Tuesday and Buckingham is excited to see his team put in another creditable showing.
“We have picked up a win and I hope it's not the last win, not just our team but for other Indian teams as well. It shows it can be done. We have picked up further results against strong teams, which is hugely pleasing. We have got on the ball and played our brand of football, which we have seen in patches in the ISL and now we have taken it to this level. I am very excited to see what I will be able to see tomorrow,” said the Englishman.