Abahani rely on foreigners for Mohun Bagan challenge
Six-time Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) champions Abahani aim to enter the group stage of AFC Cup when they encounter Mohun Bagan SG in the tournament's play-off match in Kolkata today.
The match is scheduled to get underway at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, commonly known as the Salt Lake Stadium, from 7:30pm (Bangladesh Standard Time).
Abahani kept their sights on the group stage after a 2-1 win over a Maldivian outfit, Club Eagles, in the preliminary second round last week in Sylhet. However, Indian Super League (ISL) champions Mohun Bagan stand ominously tall in Abahani's path.
The Kolkata-based popular outfit, who came to this stage after beating Nepal's Machhindra FC 3-1, had defeated Abahani 3-1 in the play-off last season before thrashing BPL champions Bashundhara Kings 4-0 in the group stage and becoming South Asian zone champions.
Going further back, the two sides met in the AFC Cup group stage in 2017. Mohun Bagan had a comfortable 3-1 victory but Abahani managed to draw the next match. Mohun Bagan recently thumped Bangladesh Army Football Team 5-0 in Durand Cup, sending an indication of their strength this season.
Abahani coach Mario Lemos, who has been at the helm of the Dhanmondi-based outfit since 2018, are well-aware of how hard Mohun Bagan can come at his charges.
"We have a lot of respect for Mohun Bagan and know their qualities. As a team we will try our very best," Lemos told The Daily Star via text messages before conducting the first practice session in Kolkata.
"They are a very attacking team and create many chances, get many players inside the box. We have to be able to stop them. Otherwise, that will make a big difference in the game," added the 38-year-old Portuguese.
Lemos got only one session to prepare his charges ahead of the crucial fixture after landing in Kolkata yesterday morning. Unlike their previous match, played under unplayable conditions in front of a huge home crowd in Sylhet, Abahani are set to feel immense pressure against Mohun Bagan who are boosted by Australian and Spanish players.
Abahani will certainly bank on their six foreigners, of whom Stuart Cornelius and Danilo Augusto struck against Club Eagles. Lemos believes the fielding of six foreign players will make them stronger.
"I think it [fielding six foriegn players] will improve the team and make it a bit more solid and physically stronger," said the Abahani coach, who is likely to play three foreign defenders to neutralise Mohun Bagan.
Abahani could not cross the preliminary round or play-off stage in the last three editions after having emerged as the South Asian zone champions to enter the inter-zonal semifinals of the AFC Cup in 2019. Asked what shortcomings prevented Abahani from getting into the group stage in the last three editions, Lemos said, "I see it more the other way, I see the opposition teams we faced have been strong teams. When you play against strong teams, sometimes the result doesn't always go your way."
Abahani manager Satyajit Das Rupu on Sunday also admitted that the Indian clubs are progressing due to the ISL, "where a lot of big players are coming to play and the Indian local players also grow in stature". Now, time will tell whether Abahani can pull off the seemingly improbable.