Updated: January 19, 2022 7:21:41 pm
In 2020, Argentine midfielder Ever Banega started for Sevilla in the Europa League final against Inter Milan and helped the Spanish team win the continental title for the sixth time in their history. In the semi-finals of the same tournament, Sevilla had edged out Manchester United by a goal in Cologne.
In the 90th minute of that loss, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer brought on Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo.
Banega left Sevilla after that Europa victory and joined Saudi Arabian club Al Shabab. A year later, Ighalo travelled east and joined Banega. In April, both players will line up against Indian Super League team Mumbai City FC after the AFC Asian Champions League draw put both clubs on a collision course in Group B. They will be joined by UAE Pro League club Al Jazira and Iraqi giants Air Force.
For Mumbai, this will be their first appearance in the club’s short history at the Champions League level and an Indian club’s second time at the continental competition. Last year FC Goa made their debut and came third in a group of four teams that had Persepolis Al Rayyan and Al Wahda. Dheeraj Singh was adjudged the goalkeeper of the tournament.
📹 | We caught up with Des Buckingham, Raynier Fernandes and Amey Ranawade to catch their reactions on our historic #ACL2022 Group Stage Draw! 🗣️#MumbaiCity #AamchiCity 🔵 @TheAFCCL pic.twitter.com/9kQ7oT0kaw
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— Mumbai City FC (@MumbaiCityFC) January 17, 2022
Mumbai, are not that Goa team, even though there are faint resemblances. A change in coaching staff from the Sergio Lobera-led team along with the departure of a few key players has left last year’s ISL champions in a different space.
“There’s been excitement about the Champions League since I arrived. We came together in the morning to watch the draw and take in this historical moment for the club,” said Des Buckingham, who inherited the Mumbai head coach job before the start of the current ISL season.
The Islanders are currently fourth in the league after 11 games and are three points behind league leaders Kerala Blasters. But their last five games have resulted in two draws and three losses. Buckingham pointed to a similar dip last year before Mumbai went on yet another run to win the ISL title.
— Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) January 17, 2022
‘We’ve gone a lot deeper into the roles of each player and what their responsibilities are – in and out of possession. It’s a new kind of style that we’re trying to evolve and build on from last year. That takes time. It’s not a matter of ‘do this and the product will be that’. It’s important that our reaction this time is similar to last year when the club went through a rough period,” said the Englishman to The Indian Express.
The focus on bouncing back after a string of poor results is not just about gaining traction in the ISL league table, but to also build on fitness and performances before the start of the Champions League. Once that unenviable task is out of the way, Buckingham believes that the club will need to practice at the yet-to-be-decided centralised venue for the group stage and ‘adjust to the playing conditions of the venue’.
But even if all boxes are ticked off, there is the matter of the murderers row of clubs in their group. Al Shabab is the first ever club to be founded in Riyadh. Iraq’s Air Force club is the oldest existing football team in the country and had beaten Bengaluru FC in the AFC Cup finals in 2016 before going on to win the tournament for the next two years in a row. Al Jazira recently signed Joao Victor from Bundesliga club Wolfsburg and Abdoulay Diaby from Portuguese giants Sporting CP.
While most of Mumbai’s players and their coach have little to no experience of having played at the highest continental level, Buckingham is relying on his time managing the youth teams of New Zealand and at one point having thwarted Fifa team of the year striker Erling Braut Haaland and his Norwegian teammates.
“I’ll lean back heavily on my experience with New Zealand football. We played against Erling Haaland’s Norway right after he had made a massive money move (to Borussia Dortmund). We needed the players to be aware of what they were going up against, be it a specific player or team. It was very much about being focused and switched on about our game plan. As long as we were clear on what we wanted to do, and how we wanted to do it… The ratio was 80% focused on what we wanted to do, and 20% on what we thought we were going to face. That fared us quite well.”
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