Mumbai City FC have had a decent start to the Indian Super League season, with three wins and two draws in their first five games. In the AFC Champions League, though, it’s been a tough road. They are at the bottom of Group D with defeats in all three games so far.
On Monday, at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai, they will be up against Al-Hilal in the return fixture of the group stage. They had begun with a 2-0 loss to Nassaji Mazandaran in Pune, before going down 3-0 away at Navbahor. A couple of weeks ago against Al-Hilal, they suffered a 6-0 defeat.
Des Buckingham’s side had fought hard in that match at Riyadh. They trailed by just one goal till the 66th minute before the hosts pulled away in emphatic fashion, slamming five more goals.
“They played very well in our last game,” said Buckingham in a press conference on Monday.
“We’re at different stages of our seasons – they’re at the back end of theirs and we are towards the start of ours. The reason I’m saying this is because for the first 70 minutes in our last match, you could see the difference in fitness, sharpness and quality. We know we can compete and have shown that. What we need to do now is try to replicate what we did in those 70 minutes the last time. We should play a style of football that we can be proud of. The players and staff have done as much as we can.”
Since that drubbing in Riyadh, Mumbai have gained confidence by picking up four points in the ISL from two hard-fought home games. They played almost the entire match against Hyderabad FC with 10 men but managed to draw 1-1 before launching a late fightback against Punjab FC to win 2-1.
However, against Al-Hilal, a team Buckingham reckons could compete with the best in England, Mumbai will need to dig deeper.
“There’s no doubt we’re going into this game knowing we won’t have as much ball possession and will have far fewer opportunities compared to how many we have in the ISL,” said the 38-year-old. “But we had our moments in the last game and I’m sure we’ll get them tomorrow as well. At this level, it’s just about making sure we grab those opportunities. For us, it’s about making sure that rather than sticking to a set system like we do in ISL, we be a bit smarter in terms of the areas we occupy on the pitch and maybe try and take away some of the creativity that they have.”
When the AFC draw was announced, there was a buzz in Mumbai at the prospect of seeing Neymar in action. The Brazil star will miss Monday’s match due to a knee injury he picked up during a World Cup qualifier last month.
“Neymar is very much an idol here in India,” said Buckingham. “Yes, it’s a shame that he picked up an injury and we wish him well with his recovery. But we know Al-Hilal’s quality won’t drop with his absence. It just poses a difference challenge rather than a lesser one.”
Mumbai’s chances of advancing in the AFC Champions League look slim at this stage, but Buckingham wants to ensure the club maintains a certain standard and grabs every opportunity to learn and improve.
“When you’re a club like Mumbai, you don’t want to be successful just one year, you want to keep building,” he said. “With that come certain pressures and expectations. But we’ve never spoken about that in the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been here. It’s all about preparing and planning. Of course, the level of this competition offers a very different challenge than the one we’re used to domestically. So, it’s all about taking the good out of every experience and building on it.”