Mumbai, March 30 (IANS) Fresh off securing the ISL League Winners' Shield in record-breaking fashion, Mumbai City FC are preparing for another challenge =- the qualifying match for a Group Stage spot in the coveted AFC Champions League.
The Islanders will take on Jamshedpur FC -- League Shield winners from last season -- in a highly-anticipated one-off match on April 4 at the Payyanad Stadium in Manjeri, Kerala. The match will determine which team will have the opportunity to compete in the 2023-24 edition of Asia's premier club football competition.
Looking ahead to next week's encounter, head coach Des Buckingham spoke about the squad's morale and their ensuing confidence following a historic campaign.
"The morale is good, everyone is coming off the back of a successful league season. We've had a brief break to recalibrate and now the squad is fit and fresh. We have no selection issues or worries. We've got a group of players that are very hungry to finish the season as strong as we started", Buckingham was quoted as saying in a release on Thursday.
Nearly 12 months ago, Mumbai City FC made Indian football history when they became the first Indian club to win a game in the Group Stage of the AFC Champions League. A second win followed along with a draw for Buckingham's side as the Islanders finished second in their group with seven points.
Having had the taste of continental football last season, the 38-year-old tactician is certain his players will have the 'hunger' to ensure their ticket to the AFC Champions League once again with the 2023-24 tournament set to be the final edition of the competition in its current format with 40 teams.
"What we could achieve last year, certainly creates hunger, knowing full well that this could be the last time for a few years that an Indian side does go to this level of competition. We were able to showcase what we could do on that stage and there is a hunger to make sure we do everything we can to put ourselves in a position to be able to do it again", the Englishman said.
With the finest football clubs across Asia competing in this continental showcase, the AFC Champions League brings the opportunity to rub shoulders with the elite -- an experience Des Buckingham and the Islanders relished in the last year in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
"We want to be a club that is successful, in any way you want to define success -- whether that be results, whether that be performances, whether that be developing players, or whether that be trophies. The beauty of this competition is it's the highest level of club competition in Asia. For me as a coach and as a player, you want to challenge yourself against the best at this level and this competition gives us the opportunity to do that."
Jamshedpur FC, who won the Hero ISL League Winners' Shield in 2021-22, come off the back of a contrasting 2022-23 campaign after finishing 10th.
However, the Red Miners brought the challenge to the Islanders on both occasions in the league stage -- a 1-1 draw in Mumbai and a hard-fought 2-1 win for Des Buckingham's side away in Jamshedpur -- and the Mumbai City head coach is expecting another challenging matchup.
"I think it is going to be an exciting one. They're a team that finished the season strongly. We've played them twice in the season and we had to find different ways to get results in both of those games. But it will be an exciting one because we know what we can do and we've shown that throughout the season.
"If we can stay true to our playing style and we approach the game in the same way we have done throughout the season, we'll put ourselves in the best position to firstly perform and then hopefully that's enough on the night to come away with the result we all want," he said.
Mumbai City will travel to Manjeri, Kerala on April 4 for the AFC Champions League Qualifier before returning to the same venue for the Hero Super Cup, with the Islanders kicking off their cup campaign against either Real Kashmir or Churchill Brothers on April 11.
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