Bangladesh Premier League champion Abahani Limited will begin their AFC Cup 2018 campaign hosting the opening Group E encounter against Maldives top-flight winner New Radiant Sporting Club in a bid to improve their performance from the previous editions of Asia's version of the Europa League. The game kicks off at Bangabandhu National Stadium Wednesday at 4:15pm.
New Radiant, known as the Blues, are being considered among the top favourites in the group along with India's big-budget side, Bengaluru Football Club. The Male-based club have won four domestic titles, the last of which ended in mid-December last year. Their new season already began with the Male League where New Radiant just played their second match Sunday before flying straight to Dhaka. The former AFC Cup semi-finalist are on a 19-match winning-streak and the troop are confident of making it 20 in a row against the Bangladesh champion.
Bangladesh football is in transitional stage, which also had an impact in its most successful club as well. Lifting the professional league title highest six times out of 10, Abahani have been a regular face in the AFC Cup but have no notable results in the past due to poor domestic infrastructure that cost them around half-a-dozen regular key players before the last edition of the AFC Cup.
The domestic football structure in Bangladesh is also not helping the clubs ahead of the AFC Cup fixtures. The previous season ended with the Independence Cup early February and nobody knows when the new professional tournament will begin. Along with New Radiant, Abahani have to face the top two Indian clubs in group stage matches in the coming months. When India's two prestigious competitions –the I-League and Indian Super League - are already rolling on the pitch and the Male League underway in Maldives, Abahani had to arrange a special training camp to keep their players fit for Asia's second-tier club tournament. The group stage will continue till mid-May with Abahani having no domestic fixtures till then.
Former Bangladesh head coach Saiful Bari Titu, who joined Abahani for the first time as head coach last month, remembered playing against the same opponent in the early 1990s. He said he had scored against the Maldives champion. With the increase of more domestic tournaments and a stronger infrastructure, the Maldives clubs as well as the national team have improved a lot since then and started getting results in recent years.
At the beginning of his speech in the pre-match press conference at BFF House Tuesday, Titu's words also reflects the current scenario of the country's football. "I'm coaching Abahani for the first time, this is not a big deal. Abahani have played in the AFC Cup/President's Cup many times before but this is not also a big matter. But what I think is the most important thing is that we have been thinking more about our country's football," said Titu.
Titu added, "I think it's an extra responsibility to do well in the AFC Cup. I started with the club on February 12 this year after which the players enjoyed a week-long break. Unfortunately, we had our foreign players back late due to visa complicacies. It was challenging in terms of physical fitness of the players. Two things had to be given concentration, training in a way to avoid fatigue and also keep up the level of fitness at the same time."
Despite the infrastructural limitation, the traditional powerhouse Abahani have given more attention to the AFC Cup than ever before. Bringing in the experienced Titu after the end of the season, they also roped in Japanese attacking midfielder Seiya Kojima in the Asian player quota. The Japanese will fill the vacancy left by the injured Emon Babu, who was at the heart of the Abahani midfield in the last two seasons and helped the club lift the premier league and Federation Cup title this season as well. One of the toughest defenders in the domestic league, Alison Udoka of Nigeria will also boost the defence, usually led by two in-form veterans - full-back Waly Faisal and versatile defensive midfielder Nasir Uddin Chowdhury. In-form Nigerian striker Sunday Chizoba is likely to lead the forward line, along with his compatriot Emeka Darlington.
Titu added, "Nothing is impossible in 90 minutes but it would not be an easy task. We tried to work hard for this game so that we can get something positive from the result. The players are motivated to do well."
Both Titu and Satyajit Das Rupu are determined to make a positive start in the AFC Cup. Rupu, the club's long-time manager, reminded his players once again to "avoid individual mistakes in such a game like this."
In contrast, New Radiant's Spanish head coach Oscar Bruzon looked confident with the club's 19-match unbeaten run. Informing that his team "like to play positional game and enjoys control of the game", Oscar also added that his side are tougher and stronger than last season with the inclusion of a couple of Spaniards and an Afghan defender.
He added, "We have finished the league winning 17 consecutive games, we have begun the Male league winning two games against TC Sports and Maziya [Sports and Recreation Club], and we would like to continue the run. This might be our 20th, but this is going to be the toughest one because this competition is tougher than the local competition. Mistakes are not allowed in such a game like this."