Seeking to qualify for the main tournament for the second consecutive year, local heavyweights ATK Mohun Bagan will start as firm favourites against a depleted Blue Star SC of Sri Lanka in their AFC Cup 2022 preliminary round two match at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on Tuesday. (More Football News)
The Mariners qualified straight to the preliminary round two after finishing runners-up to Mumbai City FC in the Indian Super League (ISL) 2020-21. Blue Star SC, on the other hand, defeated Nepal's Machhindra FC 2-1 in an away first preliminary round match to set up a clash against the Mariners.
Coached by Banda Samarakoon, the Islanders have come here with a young side without their regular captain Tharindu Erange (visa issues) and his deputy Lahiru Tharaka Silva (injury) and have just three foreigners in their line-up.
While Erange is their defensive mainstay, Silva is a vital cog in their midfield and both played in Blue Star's dominating show against the Nepalese outfit a week back. “Our vice-captain sustained an injury recently and the captain could not get his visa.
“Also one of our foreign players is injured, and the striker also has some issues,” coach Samarakoon said in the pre-match media interaction here. “But Team Blue Star is confident to pull off a technically and tactically perfect match. We have our plans in place and we will take it as a challenge facing one of the strongest clubs of India.”
Their country hit by an ongoing economic crisis, the Sri Lankans have already suffered a setback as kits of some of their members went missing when they landed in Chennai only to be routed to Kolkata late on Monday.
Krishna, Jhingan Doubtful Starters
ATK Mohun Bagan, however, are likely to miss the services of key players -- Roy Krishna and Sandesh Jhingan. Fijian ace forward Krishna is dealing with a personal tragedy – death of a close relative – and may fly back home, while Jhingan is grappling with injury concerns.
Star India defender Jhingan is nursing a knee injury since his international outing against Belarus on March 26 in Bahrain. He will take a "few more days" to recover fully and it would not be wise to name him in the starting lineup with the play-offs slated exactly after a week.
It will have to be seen who will partner Tiri in the ATKMB central defence while the Indian duo of Pritam Kotal and Subhasish Bose will have to step up.
Despite the prospect of missing their two key players, ATKMB will be the favourites with the likes of Joni Kauko, Deepak Tangri, Lenny Rodrigue, Hugo Boumous, Liston Colaco and Manvir Singh forming the core of their midfield.
Fresh Start Under Ferrando
This will be the first AFC Cup match for ATK Mohun Bagan under their new coach Juan Ferrando as they would look for a fresh start after making an inter-zone semifinal exit in the last edition. This will be ATKMB's first AFC Cup outing after they were hammered 0-6 by Uzbek side FC Nasaf in the inter-zone play-off semi final on September 22, 2021.
But under new coach Ferrando, who took charge in the middle of the ISL and helped them finish third in the table, ATKMB would look for a fresh start. A win on Tuesday will seal a play-off berth for ATK Mohun Bagan.
Finland international Joni Kauko had a troublesome start to his campaign at ATKMB last season when they suffered the 0-6 humiliation. “It wasn’t the best game for me last season in the AFC Cup as it was my first game for this club. It was tough,” said Kauko who featured in Euro 2020.
“But now is a new chance to show what we can do. We'll give our best and I hope in this competition we'll be much better than we were last year.”
Kauko further said it's ATKMB's chance to make amends for their disappointing ISL show where they finished third, after making a semifinal exit by going down to eventual winners Hyderabad FC. “It's our chance to show what we can do. It’s a good chance. We’ll work hard and let’s see where it takes us,” Kauko said.
The home side has allowed 33,000 spectators -- half the capacity -- for the match and Kauko said all the players are excited. “I"m trying to do my best and I’m excited for tomorrow’s game, to play in front of the large crowd for the first time."