At Balewadi Stadium in Pune, the much-awaited 2023–24 AFC Champions League got underway with Mumbai City FC hosting F.C. Nassaji Mazandaran in the first match of Group D. Mehdi Rahmati’s FC Nassaji defeated Mumbai City FC 2-0, scoring a goal in both the halves. Despite the game being dominated by the Islanders, the Iranian team played with enough finesse to take home all three points.
Des Buckingham, the head coach of Mumbai City FC, selected five foreign players in his starting 11. Rahul Bheke and Akash Mishra started as fullbacks, while Phurba Lachenpa started in goal. Tiri made his debut at the back with Rostyn Griffiths. Bipin Singh, Chhangte, Greg Stewart, and Jorge Pereyra Diaz made up the standard front four as Yoell Van Nieff and Apuia started in midfield. Nasser El-Khayati was named on the bench. On the other hand, Mehdi Rahmati made three adjustments to the team that defeated Sanat Naft 3-1 in Nassaji’s most recent Persian Gulf Pro League match.
Mumbai City had a slow start, but as the game progressed, the Islanders gradually gained an advantage. Jorge Pereyra Diaz made a lovely ball to Chhangte at the 10th-minute mark, but Chhangte’s attempt, which he attempted to unleash from a very tight angle, missed the mark. A couple of minutes later, Bipin Singh’s through ball toward Jorge Pereyra Diaz was nearly headed into his own net by Nassaji’s centre-back. Bipin, once again, attempted to cross the ball to Jorge Diaz in the 20th minute, but it directly fell into the palms of the Nassaji’s goalkeeper Mohammad Mazaheri.
Against the odds, FC Nassaji Mazandaran seized the lead against Mumbai City FC in the 34th minute when Nassaji’s left-back Ehsan Hosseini made a darting move forward to finish off Hossein Zamehran’s lovely through pass. The Islanders attempted to respond right after as Bipin launched a cross towards Apuia, but Apuia’s header was blocked by the opposition defender.
Six minutes were added on at the end of the first half. Early in the added time, Chhangte fired a cross towards Bipin Singh who could not find the back of the net. By far, Mumbai City FC’s finest opportunity of the game. At the end of the first half, Apuia received the game’s first caution as the first half ended 1-0 in favor of the team from Iran.
No changes were made at the start of the second half. Yoell Van Nieff’s attempt from just outside the box early in the second half was off-target. FC Nassaji made the first change of the game as Farshid Esmaeili replaced Hossein Zamehran. In the 55th minute, Hossein Zamehran was replaced by Farshid Esmaeili as FC Nassaji made the game’s first substitution. Vahid Mohammadzadeh’s headed attempt bounced off the crossbar. A few minutes later, Greg crossed the ball low toward Chhangte, who utterly missed it.
Mohammad Reza Azadi scored in the 62nd minute to increase Nassaji’s advantage. Akash Mishra erred by giving away the ball to substitute Esmaeili in his own half, who skillfully set up the goal for Azadi to tap in. Later, when Diaz attempted to drag Nassaji’s injured player outside the field, things became heated. However, the Nassaji players were not pleased, and a brawl started. Vahid Mohammadzadeh and Jorge Diaz were shown yellow cards. Soon after, Van Nieff also went into the book for a foul on Abbasi.
Mehrdad Abdi and Ahmad Mousavi were substituted for Babeai and Hosseini, respectively, by Nassaji. With 15 minutes left, Des Buckingham also made a move, substituting Vikram Pratap Singh for Akash Mishra. Greg Stewart received a cross from Bipin in the 77th minute, and he passed it on to Vikram Pratap Singh. Vikram volleyed a low cross toward the six-yard box but Jorge Diaz could not apply the finishing touch. A few moments later, Chhangte was unmarked in the six-yard box when Greg Stewart floated a stunning cross his way. Chhangte’s attempted header was unsuccessful.
Gurkirat Singh replaced Van Nieff for the final few minutes. At the conclusion of the second half, nine extra minutes were played. The Islanders attempted to attack frequently, but they were unable to get past Nassaji’s tenacious defence. Jorge Diaz attempted a curling shot from just outside the box in the 97th minute. But once more, it missed the target. The Iranian team ended up winning the game 2-0, defeating the hosts.
Mumbai City FC appeared to have a chance to win this game and get all three points, but the visitors had other plans. Except for scoring goals, the Islanders accomplished everything going forward. They created a lot of opportunities, but they failed to convert any of them. The best player for the Islanders was Greg Stewart, who once again displayed his quality by creating several opportunities.
The Islanders will open their ISL season on September 24 against Northeast United FC, and then they will travel to Bhubaneshwar to face Odisha FC, coached by former Mumbai City FC head coach Sergio Lobera. Then, they will go for Uzbekistan where they will play Navbahor Namangan in their second 2023–24 AFC Champions League group stage match.
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