Mumbai City FC, the Indian Super League Winners’ Shield champion last season, was drawn in a group containing Saudi Pro League heavyweight Al Hilal at Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.
Al Hilal is the most successful side in the Saudi league and has signed Neymar among some of its several European stars in the starting line-up this season.
Nassaji Mazandaran from Iran and Navbahor from Uzbekistan were the other two sides in the group (Group D), while Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr was drawn in Group E.
“The teams in the AFC Champions League, they’re the best in their own country. As coaches and players, we always want to test ourselves against the best.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to continue what we did last time around and to showcase what Indian football can do on that stage,” Des Buckingham, the head coach of MCFC told reporters after the draw.
The Islanders secured its consecutive appearance in the Champions League after beating ISL 2021-22 Shield Winner, Jamshedpur FC, 3-1 in a single-leg playoff in April this year.
In the Champions League, it will now face Al Hilal as its biggest challenge in the group stage. The Saudi Arabian side has won the Champions League a record four times, with its last title coming two years ago.
This summer, it strengthened its squad with seven major additions from Europe, namely Kalidou Koulibaly (from Chelsea), Ruben Neves (from Wolverhampton Wanderers), Malcolm (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Sergio Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio), Yassine Bounou (Sevilla), Aleksandar Mitrović (Fulham) and Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain).
“It is an exciting opportunity for our club and the players to not just go up against not just some of Asia’s best but also (personally) some of the world’s best footballers,” Buckingham said.
“There’s been a lot of movement in Saudi Arabia lately. I think, Cristiano Ronaldo moving (to Saudi Arabia) earlier, opened the door for more players. Am I surprised? No, because football changes and that change seems to be in that direction (now), which for us, strengthens Asian competitions.”
Neymar in India
Though Neymar will be out with an injury for a month, he will be expected to return when the Champions League begins next month, which might just see him play in India for the first time.
The Brazilian left PSG earlier this month to move out of Europe and might take the field against the Islanders at the Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex in Pune, their home stadium for the Champions League this time.
“I’d love to introduce him to Mumbai’s favourite vada pav, some of the local favourite food here and see how he enjoys that. But seriously, no plans for now, but will get into it as we get closer to the tournament. We’ve got a Durand Cup quarterfinals in a few days and that’s what is there in our mind,” Buckingham said.
Rahul Bheke, MCFC’s defender and its only Indian goalscorer in the competition, said that though he was looking forward to playing against the Brazilian, the focus would remain on the team’s overall progress.
“I’m excited. Whenever we play against them, I will try and make sure to stop him,” he said.
“More than focussing on other teams, we will look to develop our teams more. There will also be the home advantage (half of the group stage matches will be played in Pune). So, all matches will be really challenging contests.”
Uphill task for Islanders
Mumbai City FC will have a very tough task at hand in the upcoming season, with an extremely packed schedule.
While the ISL is expected to begin in September, there may be some players playing outside the FIFA international window (in the Asian Games and the AFC U-23 qualifiers).
And MCFC’s Champions League campaign will also start around that time, on September 18, against Mazandaran.
“The last time, the matches were at the end of the (domestic) season. But this time, we’ll play six games in the Champions League, starting around the (beginning of the) ISL and ending in the middle of Christmas,” Buckingham said.
“We have three away trips, one to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, and the other to Iran and Uzbekistan. Once we get the dates (of all fixtures until Christmas), we can plan according to that to make sure they are best prepared and we can look after them and keep as many of them fresh and ready.”
Last year, Mumbai City became the first Indian side to register a win in the Champions League when it beat Iraq’s Air Force Club 2-1 in the group stage. It completed a double over the same club but narrowly missed a chance into the next round.
“It was because of our performances last season that we were placed in Pot 3 and not Pot 4. And this time, the approach will be the same – to build on what we have done so far,” Buckingham added.