With an Indian Super League (ISL) final at their home ground just around the corner, Bengaluru FC (BFC) begin their AFC Cup group engagements with a match against Bangladesh champions Dhaka Abahani in Bengaluru on Wednesday.
Abahani, who were placed alongside BFC in last year's AFC Cup as well, are aiming to improve on a poor start to this year's campaign, having lost 1-0 at home to New Radiant of Maldives on March 7.
"We have made the semi-final once and the final once. It is important for the club to be there again and to try and get the cup. It will be important not just for the team but for Indian football," BFC coach Albert Roca said, having rested most of his key players for the AFC Cup game. "We have to be ambitious, and even if we are in the [ISL] final some days later, this is an important game for players that have not played too much."
Roca has named Sunil Chhetri in the squad, which features only three foreign players in defender Juanan Gonzalez, midfielder Erik Paartalu and striker Daniel Segovia, and is likely to give a run to the younger members of his squad.
Abahani head coach Saiful Bari Titu, however, insisted that even without their best players, BFC would be a tough opponent for his team that is relatively low on match practice -- the AFC Cup game against New Radiant was their first since January 11, while BFC have played 15 games in that period.
"The problem is with our domestic scheduling. The thing is that matches always give you some ideas about your team in terms of the most influential players," Titu said.
"Another thing is that the difference between the local players is a big factor in the AFC Cup. In Bangladesh, the league is not that competitive. Sometimes we are missing some tricks during matches and at some stages. You miss something, you concede. I think Bengaluru are becoming one of the greatest teams in India, in terms of playing style and also the structure and development. They have good players individually and they have good reactions as players, especially in transition. That is the area we have to improve ourselves -- when we lose the ball and when we win the ball -- we have to be sharper."
Abahani will miss the services of Nigerian striker Sunday Chizoba -- sent off with the team trailing 1-0 in the 65th minute of the previous match -- but fellow-Nigerian Emeka Onuoha and Japanese playmaker Seiya Kojima will pull the strings in the attacking third in his absence.
Defender Waly Faisal felt that while Abahani are focused on getting their first points of this AFC Cup campaign, the players realise a good performance could help them follow in the footsteps of players like Mamunul Islam - who was picked by ATK for the first season of the ISL - and other south Asian players like Chencho Gyeltshen and Kiran Limbu, who are both I-League champions with Minerva Punjab this season.
"I think we have a lot of talented footballers in Bangladesh, and they would love to have an opportunity of playing in India. Bangladesh used to challenge India on a regular basis once upon a time, but we have not been able to develop our football at the same rate and slipped behind in recent times," Faisal said. "Tomorrow is a chance for us to reclaim some glory for Bangladesh football by putting up a good performance."