Mumbai City FC will start their 2023-24 AFC Champions League campaign against Iranian side F.C. Nassaji Mazandaran on 18th September at 7:30 pm at the Balewadi Stadium, Pune – the home of the Islanders for the tournament. We had the opportunity to hear directly from Mehdi Rahmati, the head coach of Nassaji Mazandaran, as well as Des Buckingham, the head coach of Mumbai City FC, as both these teams gear up for their epic showdown in the opening game of Group D. Mehrdad Abdidi and Phurba Lachenpa were accompanying their coaches as well.
Mumbai City FC will be representing India in the continental competition for the second straight year. The Islanders had a standout ISL 2022–23 season and won the ISL shield to qualify for the AFC Champions League. Mumbai City FC is coming into this game, back off a semi-final exit against Mohun Bagan Super Giants in the 2023 Durand Cup. On the other hand, F.C. Nassaji Mazandaran won the 2021-22 Hafzi Cup, Iran’s yearly cup competition, to guarantee their participation in the AFC Champions League. In the Iran Pro League, Nassaji has had a sluggish start to the season thus far, winning only one of their first four games.
“There’s a general standard to this level of competition” – Des Buckingham
Mumbai City FC became the first ISL club to win a match in the AFC Champions League when they defeated Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in the 2021/22 ACL. They also managed to finish second in the group with seven points from six games. The 38-year-old English manager said the following when questioned about whether prior competitive experience would be beneficial this time.
“We were fortunate in our last campaign and where happy with what we did. We’ve got a lot of good experience from that tournament. But, it’s very different this time around but that doesn’t mean those experiences won’t be useful this time as well.”
“Because, our players, we went into the unknown. There’s a lot of people and players that hadn’t competed at that level but now they know what that looks like, they know the level of it. Obviously, that will change from team to team, but there is a general standard to this level of competition which we had the exposure of. “
“We’re still waiting on El-Khayati” – Mumbai City FC’s Des Buckingham
Mumbai recently announced the signing of Dutch midfielder Nasser El-Khayati as a replacement for Alberto Nogura, who has lately returned to Spain due to an injury. When asked about the availability of the players for the game ahead, Des added “We’re still waiting on El-Khayati in terms of visa which I know is a sensitive subject right now (chuckles). But we’re waiting on visa and for him to arrive. I’m not sure when that may be.”
“But otherwise, everyone trained yesterday. So, we will train again today and then we will make the decisions on what we feel will be the best team to go out and try and compete. Then we need to make sure that we manage the game well and try and come away with the result that we want”
“We are representing not only Mumbai City, we are representing India” – Phurba Lachenpa
In the 2021/22 AFC Champions League, Phurba Lachenpa, the Islanders’ backup goalkeeper behind Nawaz, was given the chance to show his mettle. Lachenpa kept two clean sheets while starting five of the six games. He has now cemented himself as the Islanders’ first-choice goalkeeper. When asked about the away trips and challenges in the AFC Champions League, Lachenpa opined his thoughts.
“It’s always exciting and it’s always challenging for us to do well because we’re a top club and we are not only representing Mumbai City FC, but also India as a club, and to do well there is always pressure but it’s always up to us on our mentality, how we deal with it and how we prepare against top teams in this competition.”
“I have only one good striker” – Mehdi Rahmati
Due to one of their two foreign players receiving a visa denial for travel to India, F.C. Nassaji Mazandaran will only have one foreign player available for their match against Mumbai City FC. Mumbai City, on the other hand, may have six foreign players available. Mehdi Rahmati (FC Nassaji head coach) added the following when questioned about the predicament.
“We have only two foreign players in the team but one of them actually, was not granted a visa. So, he did not get to come to India. Football is a place where we should start collaboration and make friendships. So we have to start working together. But one of the players, as you know, one of them could not get the visa.”
“So, what I know at the moment is that I don’t have one of my best players. So, instead of having two good strikers, I only have one good striker at the moment because the other was not granted a visa. Not granting the visa to one of my players was a big problem for me. I hope AFC can find a solution for the upcoming matches so that other teams will not suffer.”
As the clock ticks on, the whole Indian football community, not just supporters of Mumbai City FC, would be anticipating seeing the Islanders play in the continental stage. Sports 18 Channel will broadcast the game live. Additionally, FanCode and JioTV will also offer live streaming options.
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