Bheke’s winner gives Mumbai FC a historic win in Asian Champions League

April 13, 2022

FootballAsian Champions League


“Keep going. Believe in what we do.”

This is what Mumbai City FC coach Des Buckingham screamed out to his team when they conceded a goal against Air Force Club Iraq in an Asian Champions League Group B game on Monday.

Before the start of the tournament, before they had landed in Riyadh, and even before the draw was out, Buckingham had one clear goal – one win in the Champions League.

And win they did in their second game of this campaign. Two strikes in the 70th and 75th minute from Diego Mauricio and Rahul Bheke handed an Indian club its first-ever victory in the AFC Champions League. Mauricio and Bheke now have the distinction of being the first Indians to score a goal in the competition.

This was a turnaround for Mumbai City FC. The opener against Al-Shabab was a disaster. Three goals conceded, not a single shot on target. The campaign had got off to the worst possible start.

Up next was Air Force Club, a team that had edged past the in-form Bengaluru FC in the final of the AFC Cup six years ago. Bengaluru had Sunil Chhetri in their ranks but there was a gulf in class the 1-0 scoreline did not reflect.

The then coach Albert Roca had this to say about Air Force Club: ‘All of their players had a level which we perhaps cannot achieve’.

It was a marker of how good the Iraqi club’s players were.

Yesterday, Mumbai began their game with a passing flurry in the third minute that was interrupted by a handball.

This team knew that a draw and a push for a result in the last 10 minutes is a possibility if they sit back and defend deep – something that Goa chose to do last year in a maiden appearance for an Indian club at the highest Asian level.

But Mumbai chose to be brave, they chose to play a high backline and trusted their record Indian midfield signing in Apuia Ralte to hold the fort against a formidable team. Ralte finished the game with an 89% pass accuracy rate, while the entire Mumbai team completed 78% of their passes.

“We knew how tough it was going to be in the Champions League. Especially considering the season we had and considering how the league (Indian Super League) is only eight seasons old. It’s only the second time a club from India has reached this competition and we are competing against very well-resourced and experienced teams, especially teams that have operated at this level for a long period of time,” said Mumbai City FC’s Des Buckingham in the post-match presser.

“I’m proud of how we won the game. It was by playing a good style of football and the result felt deserved. We now have the opportunity to refocus and create further history in this tournament,” added Buckingham.

The winning goal

Mumbai’s second half began a lot more different than their first. While still outmatched in passing, physicality, and speed, the ISL team stuck to their guns and tried to keep possession and win fouls when possible.

But in the second half, they were giving up possession cheaply and were punished with a goal from Hammadi Ahmed in the 59th minute.

The goal served as a jolt for the 2021 ISL Champions. They started by keeping more possession and were helped by a sudden drop in Air Force’s energy. Eleven minutes later they won a penalty, which was converted by Diego Mauricio.

Five minutes later, defender Rahul Bheke, from Nerul in Navi Mumbai, found himself free in the box (thanks to a stealthy push on his marker that went unchecked) for a header from a Ahmed Jahouh corner.

He directed it downwards and away from the goalkeeper to score the winning goal.

Ramadan preparations

Air Force were dominant in their passing and were regularly able to find their way into the Mumbai City final third – an area of concern for Buckingham going into their next game.

But most of their players kept missing opportunities and when they didn’t, Mumbai skipper Mourtada Fall would be present with clean and sliding tackles to avert any danger.

After the game, the Air Force club manager Hakeem Shaker said that his team’s fitness was not up to the mark and the reason was his players needed to fast on the occasion of Ramadan.

Buckingham said that while he couldn’t speak for Air Force Club’s players, he had fielded six players who were also fasting and that Mumbai had come prepared.

“We knew coming into this tournament that fasting would be a factor and we had to be smart about how those players would prepare for the matches, especially with a short turnaround between games,” said Buckingam.

Mumbai will next face tournament favorites Al Jazira. The UAE Pro League club has tasted two defeats in two games and will be treating their clash against Mumbai on April 14 as a must-win tie.

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