Indian Super League side Mumbai City FC have been drawn alongside Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, Iran’s Nassaji Mazandaran, and Uzbekistan’s PFC Navbahor Namangan in Group D of the AFC Champions League 2023-24 after the draw for the continental competition was in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
Mumbai City FC are set to play in Asia’s premier club competition for their second successive season. They emerged winners in the ISL League Stage during the 2022-23 season and beat Jamshedpur FC in the Hero Club Playoffs to confirm their place in the AFC Champions League for the ongoing edition.
Des Buckingham shared his insights on the group in which Mumbai has been placed.
“The teams in this level of competition are the best in their own country. So regardless of the drawer itself, and obviously the teams we’ve now we now know, it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to go and not just test ourselves, but try and continue what we did last time. And that’s for us to compete and for the players to perform and perform the way they did last time. And if we can do that, then we’ll put ourselves in a very strong position to hopefully come away with some results from those games.”
Des Buckingham revealed what it was like in the dressing room during the ACL draw.
“Players want to play against the best and when they get an opportunity to do that. There was a large cheer when Mumbai was featured to start with and then when they were pulled out into that group. It’s an exciting opportunity for our club, for the players to come up against not just Asia’s best, but I can be some of the world’s best players as well now, so it was one of excitement and it meant a lot. We’re excited about taking to the field and sharing the field with these players. And we’re also very eager to compete and see how we all can get on against them and their world-class professionals.”
Des Buckingham spoke on the group’s toughest opponent Al-Hilal FC and their players.
“Obviously, all the Saudi players that are there have allowed them to be as successful as they have over the last couple of seasons, but even with the new additions in this transfer window, Neymar is obviously the latest and probably the standout in there. But it’s you still got people on Neves from Wolves, you’re looking at Malcolm, Mitrovic again from Fulham. And there are many more that have come in and that’s an exciting thing to play against those types of players saying that might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or hopefully might be twice now on the group stage for us in our club.”
“Once we get a little bit closer to those fixtures we’ll obviously turn our attention and focus a bit more on them. It’s going to be a real challenge, and it’s one that we won’t shy away from. We will do the same as we do in the ISL or other competitions. We will try and prepare our team and our players as well as we can to try and face these challenges. And, the best bit whether it’s a coach or a player is to put yourself in a position where you deserve to go to this level, and then showcase what we can do.”
Des Buckingham hopes that India gets its future slots in the ACL back at the earliest.
“I’d probably say yes. The players work extremely hard throughout the season. They had a taste of this level of competition. They know what the differences are between domestic and elite levels in particular. They want to challenge and test themselves to see what they can do and put themselves outside of their comfort zone, and that for me, is the last opportunity. So we’ll do everything we can to make sure that players can perform well, and hopefully, in the not too distant future, the spot does return. But, in the meantime, it’s one last opportunity for us to show what we can do at this stage.”
“All we can do is make sure that we put the best account of ourselves in the competition. We’ve seen what we were able to do last year allowed us to, but the results and the points that come with that. It allowed us to go into Pot three this year instead of Pot four in this competition. And, it’ll be the same this time if we can collect the results that will give us additional points for Asian competitions.”
“Then of course you have Mohun Bagan Super Giants and Odisha FC also in the AFC competition. So the better teams do right now, the better. I say longer term, but hopefully, it’s then not too long before it does return. I think and hope there is a plan for the spot to return at some point in not too distant future.”
Des Buckingham joked that he plans to introduce Neymar to the popular Vada Pav.
“Well, the plan’s to introduce him to a Mumbai favorite Vada Pav. We’ll have to introduce him to some of the local favorite foods here and see how he enjoys them. But no plan like I said, I think when you can bring the world’s best players and have the opportunity for them to visit India. It’s not just great for our football system to get people turning their eyes and attention to what happens here. It will give people the opportunity to come and see these players close up in an opportunity that may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fans to come and see the level and quality of players on the field.”
Des Buckingham spoke on the club’s decision to play the ACL game in Pune.
“I think we would love to play at the Mumbai Football Arena because of how special that is to us. But, it’s not possible with the regulations that are placed upon the Champions League and the needs that are there for that. So the club has made what it feels is the next best decision to make sure that it stays within the region.”
“That’s why it’s gone to Pune, and I know our club is going to work hard with our fans and fan groups to make sure that as many of them who want to get to games can hopefully access and go to Pune, although it’s a little bit further away from where the MFA is. It’s not too much of a disadvantage and so, we can attract the crowds we know that these games certainly will attract.”
Des Buckingham spoke on the importance of keeping players fit for the busy games ahead.
“Yeah, the last time it was in a bubble at the end of our season. So this year, we’ll play six games in the Champions League, from the start of what will be the ISL season, and we’ll finish them before Christmas. So it’s going to be a very congested schedule. And then on top of that, the international breaks in September, October, and November are there. So it’s going to be a very busy schedule for everyone. But we now have three good overseas trips to Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Uzbekistan as well.”
“It’s like we have done in the last two years when we get the fixtures and dates, we can plan around to make sure that all players are prepared, and we can look after them and try to keep them fit, and fresh as we possibly can to make sure that when they take to the field, whether it’s the ISL or in the Champions League they can put on the best performance that they can show because we’ve already seen when they do, and when we do as a club, we are more than capable of competing at that level.”
Captain Rahul Bheke shed some light on the going up against Al-Hilal FC
“As we all know Al-Hilal is one of the best teams in Asia. They were runners-up last season and before that they were champions. It’s a great challenge for all of us. Whether it’s about Indian players or the foreigners we will be facing. So, we just have to go there, do our best, and play in front of the fans, like we all experienced last season during the ISL, that how great the support was and how well we did at our home. So we’re super excited to play the Champions League matches in front of the fans.”
Bheke plans to stop Neymar and revealed the teams his mates wanted.
“I’m super excited. So whenever we will be playing against them. If I play that game, I will make sure that my best will be to stop him from playing well. That’s the best and all that I can do for the team.”
“Our players were excited like they wanted to face any one of these teams. Some of them are very big Ronaldo fans, so they wanted Al Nassr to be there. And, the others like we all were excited if we could get one of the teams, and then we got the Al-Hilal. So we are looking forward to playing them.”
Bheke spoke on their ongoing preparations for the AFC Champions League.
“Yes, so our preparations for the Champions League will be the same as last time. We got the chance and we did our best and got two wins. But it was not enough for us to qualify for the next round. And this year our target will be the same. We have to get to the next round, thus our preparations have already started, and we are now in the middle of the Durand Cup. Then we will be getting around two to three weeks before our first game. We did our best to prepare well and face our first home game.
Rahul spoke on whether the ACL campaign would help in the Asian Cup.
“The Champions League and the Asian Cup, it’s two different tournaments. There will be two different teams playing all Indians in the Asia Cup, and here you will be playing with the foreigners. So it will be totally different scenario. But for the Indian players, it’s good to keep playing and competing with good teams and players before the Asian Cup as we have played against Kuwait and Lebanon.
“We will be playing against Iraq and Qatar later this year. So these matches are important before we go there because we know the level of the Asian Cup. So for the Mumbai boys, who all will be there in the national team, it’s certainly a good test and a great challenge for them before the Asian Cup.”
Mumbai City FC will be playing their next game in the Durand Cup quarterfinals against Mohun Bagan Super Giants on Sunday at VYBK Stadium from 6 PM.
Follow IFTWC for all the latest updates on Indian Football.