A fancied Bengaluru FC will mark the start of a new era when they take on Nepalese side Tribhuvan Army FC in a preliminary stage two clash of the AFC Cup in Bambolim on Wednesday.
The fixture will be Marco Pezzaiuoli’s first competitive game in charge of the Blues, since his appointment as head coach in February.
“I’m very hungry for my first game. The players look sharp and the preparation has been good. The youngsters are working hard, and in our friendly against Goa, they performed well. They are putting pressure on the others in the squad, and that is good to see,” said Pezzaiuoli.
“This is an important game for us because we exited the competition early last season, and we want to reach the Group Stage this year. The first step in that direction is to beat a strong Nepalese team and I believe we are strong enough to do that.”
Tribhuvan Army Club recorded a 4-1 comeback victory over Sri Lanka Police in their preliminary stage one clash at the Dasharath Rangasala Stadium in Nepal last week, with striker Nawayug Shrestha scoring twice.
The Kathmandu-based team finished the Martyr’s Memorial League in second place in their previous campaign, with Shreshta finishing top scorer for the side with six goals.
In a winner-takes-all tie, the victors will advance to the playoff stage of the 2021 AFC Cup, with either Bangladesh’s Abahani Limited Dhaka or Club Eagles of Maldives their next opponents.
Bengaluru FC will – given their AFC Cup history – start as favourites but Tribhuvan can’t be taken lightly, especially after their impressive win over Sri Lanka Police in the preliminary round one last week.
Head coach Nabin Neupane’s side showed great resilience to fight back after going a goal down and won’t be lacking in confidence against a Bengaluru side who are coming off a difficult Indian Super League season.
The former champions finished seventh in the ISL and qualifying for the AFC Cup group stage will go a long way in making up for their disappointing domestic season.
The good news for newly appointed Bengaluru head coach Pezzaiuoli is the availability of the talismanic Sunil Chettri, who has recovered from Covid-19.
The Indian captain is looking forward to the tie and is expecting a “reaction” from Bengaluru in their attempt to make up for their ISL struggles.
“I really expect a reaction and it starts from individuals. We were horrible last year, to say the least, and that gives an added motivation to everyone to perform,” said Chhetri to reporters.
Having said that, Chhetri cautioned against underestimating Tribhuvan.
“We saw Tribhuvan beat the Sri Lankan team. They play quite well. You can see the unity and the way they have trained. They must have stayed together for a time. It’s not going to be easy.”
Bengaluru have been in Goa for a little over three weeks, and have completed a month of training under Pezzaiuoli, who maintained that his side would be keen on focusing on themselves and their style of play.
Gabonese defender Yrondu Musavu-King remains the lone foreign inclusion in the squad, and is expected to man the Blues’ backline alongside Juanan Gonzalez.
Five BFC B players, Sharon Padattil, Muhammad Inayath, Damaitphang Lyngdoh, Akashdeep Singh and Sivasakthi Narayanan, have also made Marco Pezzaiuoli’s squad for the playoff stages.
“It was very important for the team to get physically and tactically ready, and we have been able to do that. The coach has done a good job, and all the players are confident and feeling fresh,” said goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
“We are raring to go, because the AFC Cup is a prestigious tournament and one that is very important for us. We want to be able to have a good start.”