History beckons trailblazers Bengaluru FC as they lock horns with Air Force Club of Iraq in the summit clash of AFC Cup on Saturday, aiming to become the first Indian football club to clinch a continental title.
Bengaluru FC have already created history by becoming the first Indian club to qualify for the final of a continental tournament after they defeated defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim in the semifinals on 4-2 aggregate last month. Before this, the farthest an Indian club had advanced in a continental tournament was the two AFC Cup semifinal appearances by Dempo in 2008 and East Bengal in 2013. But a bigger glory, which will be unprecedented in the annals of Indian football history, awaits Bengaluru as they prepare to clash with the Iraqi side, which, just like the Indian club, is also playing in its maiden AFC Cup final, at the Qatar Sports Club Stadium.
No football team from India, a laggard in the international arena, has won an Asian level title since the national side bagged the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games gold. East Bengal won the first ASEAN Championship in Indonesia in 2003, beating Thai club BEC Tero Sasana 3-1 in the final. But that was a tournament competed by 10 sides from South East Asian countries plus East Bengal representing India as an invitational team.
It will be a remarkable achievement for Bengaluru, owned by JSW Steel, if they win the AFC Cup title in just the third year of their inception. Bengaluru won the 2013-14 I-League title in their debut appearance. They finished second in 2014-15 season and then reclaimed the title this year. In between, they won the Federation Cup in 2015.
The Bengaluru-based side, coached by Albert Roca, a former assistant coach at FC Barcelona, have been in superb form in the tournament winning six times, losing thrice and drawing twice. They are also expected to get the homelike feeling in Doha as a large number of Indian expatriates settled in Qatar will be rooting for them.
Many people had not given a chance to Bengaluru when they took on Johor in the semifinals as the Malaysian side had beaten them twice in the group stage. But Bengaluru staked their claim for glory by earning a 1-1 away draw in the first leg of the semifinals before a 3-1 victory in the second at home.
Bengaluru players, led by India captain Sunil Chhetri, will have the extra motivation to chase history but they will have to play out of their skin against a top class Iraqi side which has at least four national team players and have won eight out of 11 matches in the tournament. They drew twice and lost once.
Air Force Club have scored 26 goals in 11 matches so far in their campaign with 15 coming from their rampaging striker Hammadi Ahmed Abdullah, a national team player. “We have to fight hard and lift our level on Saturday because it’s the final of the AFC Cup competition. We will look to reduce our mistakes, and — although we must respect our opponents — we must focus very strongly in the game,” said Ahmed.
Roca, however, is not unduly worried about their opponents’ goal-scoring spree. “I’ve said more than a few times that we play to our strengths. We have got to be brave and I don’t see how going defensive translates to being brave. Yes, they are a good side that loves scoring but we back ourselves,” said Roca.
The Spanish gaffer has to ensure that his defensive line-up led by John Johnson and Juanan will have to remain rock-solid if his side is to have any chance of winning the coveted title. Bengaluru defence looked shaky in the group stages as they conceded 10 goals while scoring only nine, though the back-line improved its performance in the knock-out stages.
Roca will also hope that his inspirational captain and striker Sunil Chhetri continue with his splendid form of the second leg semifinals in Bengaluru.
Chhetri, who has netted five goals so far in the tournament, struck twice in the 3-1 win over Johor, his second strike emerging as the talk of town and arguably one of the best goals of his illustrious career.
Bengaluru will also be happy to learn that Air Force Club will be without the services of influential midfielder Bashar Rasan and centre-back Samal Saaed through suspension.
The 19-year-old midfielder Bashar recently made his debut for the Iraqi national team. He has quickly become one of the most important players for his club. Saaed has played in 10 out of his side’s 11 matches in this tournament and is their first choice centre-back.
On the other hand, Bengaluru FC will miss the services of first choice goalkeeper Amrinder Singh, who is suspended and he will be replaced by 23-year-old Lalthuammawia Ralte. Young Udanta Singh is also likely to play a part as he has recovered from an injury. He last came on as a substitute against Tampines Rovers in their 1-0 win in the quarterfinals in September.