AFC Cup: I-League champions Mohun Bagan AC take on Maldives club, Bengaluru FC face Lao Toyota FC
Key player Sony Norde said that the AFC Cup will be the real test for his side.
Guwahati: Having failed to make the grade at the top tier Asian Champions League, Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan will begin their AFC Cup football campaign against Maziya Sports and Recreation Club of the Maldives in their 'home' leg match here on Wednesday.
Mohun Bagan had to play in the AFC Cup, the second tier club competition of the continent, after losing 0-6 against China's Shandong Luneng in the second round of the qualifiers of the AFC Champions League early this month.
The reigning I-League champion side are playing at the Indira Gandhi Athletics Stadium here as the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata has been closed down to prepare it for next year's Under-17 FIFA World Cup and none of the other stadiums nearby are of AFC standards.
In fact, the Indira Gandhi Athletics Stadium will also host Mohun Bagan's two other 'home' matches in Group G on March 16 and May 11.
Despite the disappointment of not being able to advance further in the AFC Champions League qualification round, Mohun Bagan are coming off a splendid run in the I-League. They are atop the leader board and have been unbeaten this season so far.
Key player and striker Sony Norde said that the AFC Cup will be the real test for his side.
"AFC Cup will be our real test now after triumphing over the I-League last year," he said.
Asked which one he would take between a derby (against East Bengal) win or a victory in AFC Cup, Norde said, "I would grab AFC win with both hands. Our supporters are emotionally connected to derby and it draws thousands of supporters to the stadium, but from club vantage point a win in the continent stage is huge. Be it a derby or any other match, we have to play with same intensity."
On the other hand, Maziya Sports & Recreation are one of Maldives's most successful sides. They have won the Maldives FA Cup on two occassions -- in 2012 and 2014. They have also won the Maldivian FA Charity Shield last year.
The Maldivian side have been regulars in the AFC Cup for the last three seasons though they have always bowed out in the group stages. They do not have the best of memories coming to India, as they lost to Bengaluru FC 1-2 last year.
Apart from Mohun Bagan, Bengaluru Football Club, the runners-up in I-League last season, will also figure in the tournament in which 32 teams from 27 countries of Asia are participating.
Bengaluru FC begin their campaign in the AFC Cup football against Lao Toyota FC.
Chhetri, the national team captain, has not made the trip owing to a strained groin while livewire midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh will also be missed on Wednesday as he continues his recuperation from a fracture.
However, young striker Daniel Lalhlimpuia will be in the reckoning after recovering from a knee injury that had kept him on the sidelines for over a month.
Despite the absence of the likes of Chhetri and Lyngdoh, head coach Ashley Westwood said his team's tryst with continental football last season could hold them in good stead in the Group H opener at the National Stadium here.
The Blues arrived here on Sunday before putting in two training sessions yesterday and today and the gaffer said preparations for the game were on track.
"We've been here two days which was good because the players have had time to acclimatize. We've had a look at the pitch, we've had a little football and the lads are keen to get going," said Westwood at the match-eve press conference today.
Lao Toyota, like Bengaluru, were established in 2013 and made the AFC Cup group stages by virtue of being the Lao Premier League champions last season. Their previous and only AFC Cup journey ended with an exit in the group stages last season after three draws and three defeats.
While Bengaluru have never faced Lao Toyota, Westwood said that his team had been studying some footage of their opponents.
"We've watched a few videos from last season given that the League here has not begun as yet and we are well aware of what we are up against. The Lao players are technically and physically good and will prove tough opposition. We've played in Malaysia, Maldives, Singapore and Hong Kong and we know the standard and level that Asia demands. Hopefully, we will give a good account of ourselves," said Westwood.