After winning the League Shield and the Indian Super League (ISL) title in the 2020-21 season, expectations were high from Mumbai City FC coming into the new campaign. However, it was a disappointing domestic run for the Islanders last season as they failed to qualify for the semifinals of the ISL, while finishing fifth at the end of the season.
But the ISL is a past chapter, and Mumbai City head coach Des Buckingham and his men have a new journey to look forward to in the AFC Champions League in Riyadh. Mumbai City FC has been placed in Group B along with Al-Jazira, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya and Al-Shabab.
Talking to the media ahead of Mumbai’s opening fixture against Al-Shabab on April 8, Buckingham, accompanied by his vice-captain, Mandar Rao Dessai, said his team has been training well and is ready to face the challenging journey that lies ahead.
“This is only the second time an Indian team is playing in the competition after Goa [FC Goa] last year. They picked up three draws and showed what Indian players are capable of at this level. We want to do what no other Indian club has done before and that is to win a match in this competition. But, it is also important to not look too much forward and take one game at a time,” said Buckingham.
“The teams that are here are very good teams and very well resourced. If we look across the squads, the level is a lot higher. The teams have not just been performing well in their respective leagues, but consistently playing these competitions where they get to compete against the best. So, it will be a challenge, but for me, that is not a problem but an exciting opportunity for our players to compete at that level and show what they are capable of.”
Preparation for Champions League
It is unlikely that Mumbai City FC, which usually resorts to a possession-based style of football, will get too much time on the ball to effectively implement its style, given the fast pace it would have to cope with in the AFC Champions League.
Buckingham, well aware of this, said that it is “important to assess competitions where we haven’t played before.” Talking about using FC Goa’s matches last year in the competition as a reference, he added that the friendlies against Al Ain and Al Hilal United during the two-week training camp in Abu Dhabi helped his team a lot in preparing for the upcoming matches.
“Al Ain played an extremely strong team against us. They only had four players missing on international duty. What they gave us was an opportunity to show our players the level of competition and a chance to test themselves. The second game against Al Hilal gave us a chance to try out some of the shapes and structures and tidy up leading up to the Champions League,” said Buckingham.
After a disappointing ISL campaign, Buckingham knew that being the head coach, he had the job of counselling his players to forget about the past and look at the journey ahead.
“We were in a bubble for six months and players needed to get mentally refreshed if nothing more and to go and spend some time with their families. I think the same goes for the staff. So the break helped because when we got back to Abu Dhabi, the disappointment of last season didn’t reflect much in the players and staff and it was about not looking behind but what lies ahead of us.”
Adding to this, left-back Mandar Rao Dessai said, “We gave our best in the season but could not get the desired result. But now, everyone is excited about the Champions League and we want to perform to the best of our ability.”
The young guns
Despite a disappointing season, the performance of youngsters like Bipin Singh and Vikram Partap Singh was a big positive for Mumbai. Asked about guiding the youngsters through difficult situations, Mandar said the attitude of the youngsters makes things easier.
“All the young players are really excited to play and give their best. The most important thing is that they always want to learn new things. They listen to not only me but all the senior players. All of us guide them in our own ways and even when they make mistakes, we encourage them. Going into the competition, we might not have a lot of ball possession but it is our job as seniors to motivate them and help them do well for us,” said Dessai.