Bengaluru FC have already had a fling with history after becoming the first Indian club to reach a continental final. But being a club that have always managed to escalate ambitions and then meet them, nothing less than the AFC Cup trophy would be considered truly historic.
Winning the competition would be another feather in their hat, but to become the first Indian club to achieve the feat within three years of their existence would make all of Asia take notice.
Their opponents on Saturday are Air Force Club or Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, as they are known in Iraq. Al-Jawiya is the oldest football club in the country, and bringing joy to their troubled nation would be an added inspiration, but a desire to add continental success to their great domestic record will be their greatest motivation.
Al-Jawiya have won ten domestic league titles and have four Iraq FA Cup crowns, but a lack of continental honours, unlike their city rivals in Baghdad, has left a void in their trophy cabinet. After reaching their first ever AFC Cup final, they finally have a chance to not just establish parity with their rivals, but also trigger a constructive change in Iraqi football after the national team's poor show in the World Cup qualifiers.
The Sultan Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha will be witness to history regardless of which team comes out as the winners. The venue will hand a slight edge to the Iraqi side, who have been using the stadium for their home matches in the competition due the safety concerns in Iraq.
So Bengaluru FC's possible AFC Cup triumph will involve taming the lion in his adopted den. However, their road to the showpiece event in Doha suggests that the Blues haven't been fazed by hostilities on their travels, having returned unbeaten from their trips in the knockout stages of the competition this year.
Bengaluru, who were managed by former Manchester United youth academy product Ashley Westwood for a good part of the competition, showed the flair at their disposal when they fired three goals past Kitchee in a 3-2 win that booked their place in the quarter-final.
The Blues, who were then taken over by former Barcelona assistant manager Albert Roca, added steel to the flair. Couple of clean sheets against Tampines Rovers gave them an aggregate 1-0 win and a record-matching entry into the semi-finals.
In the last four against defending champions Johor Darul Ta'zim — who had beaten Bengaluru FC twice in the group stages — Roca's men surprised their opponents with a confident showing in the first leg and brought home a 1-1 result. In the reverse leg, playing in front of a packed Kanteerva stadium, a Sunil Chhetri-inspired Bengaluru FC played the game of their lives to win 3-1 on the night.
Al-Jawiya, on the other hand, have been sinking their opponents through their great attacking prowess. Having scored 26 goals on their way to the final, the Iraqi side have made a mockery of clubs like Al Jaish and Al Ahed.
Striker Hammadi Ahmed has been leading their charge with 15 goals in 10 games and will pose the a massive threat to the Indian champions in the final.
"We have to fight hard and lift our level on Saturday because it's the final of the AFC Cup competition," Ahmed was quoted as saying by AFC's official website on Friday.
"We will look to reduce our mistakes, and although we must respect our opponents, we must focus very strongly in the game," he added.
India's top scorer Chhetri, who has five goals to his name, will try to be a thorn in Al-Jawiya's flesh, something he successfully managed to do against Johor in the semi-finals. The skipper has been upbeat in the build-up and has urged his team to give it their all in the final.
"We have created history by becoming the first side to make the final and in a day we have a chance to go one step further. But whatever the result, this is a big occasion and a feat that should inspire the country." Chhetri said ahead of the final.
"This final is the biggest game of my club career and there are no second thoughts on that. But more importantly, it means so much to Indian football too. The club and the country have caught the attention of Asian football and there should be no turning back from here," the Indian skipeer told PTI in an interview on Friday.
Wishes have been pouring in from all parts of the country for the Blues as the Indian football fraternity has put forward an united stand in their support. The expectations of the nation will add pressure on Albert Roca's men, but he believes that his players are up for challenges like these.
"It's an important game and the players know it but at the end of it all, it's just another game. As professionals, the players know that we have a tough team up against us in Air Force Club. The most important thing is to be as prepared as possible," Roca said on Friday.
"There's no pressure. All the games I've been in charge here have been important games and I can say that these players are up for the task and they're ready to go." he added.
What should work in favour of Bengaluru, who have peaked at the right times, is injury to their opponents' influential midfielder Bashar Rasan and the suspension of centre-back Samal Saaed.
Rasan recently made his debut for the Iraqi national team. The 19-year-old midfielder fast became one of the most important players for Al-Jawiya, netting three goals in the continental competition this year.
Meanwhile, Saaed played in 10 AFC Cup matches for the Iraqi team and is their first choice centre-back.
Bengaluru, on their part, will miss the services of first-choice goalkeeper Amrinder Singh, who is suspended due to the accumulation of yellow cards. Defender Shankar Sampingiraj, midfielder Darren Caldeira and full back Lalchhuanmawia Fanai are yet to completely recover from their injuries also.
But the crux of the team remains the same with the likes of Udanta Singh also on hand to make an impact from the bench.
Having already beaten the champions of Singapore and Malaysia, Bengaluru FC will now set their sights on defeating a club from a West-Asian nation, thus staking a rightful claim for the crown. They are up against a physically strong side, who are scoring for fun. But having knocked Johor — a team with similar traits — out in the last round, Bengaluru have plenty of reasons to believe that they can emerge champions.
With both sides looking for their first crown, it promises to be an epic battle and the winner is certain to be rewarded with a place in history.
Published Date: Nov 05, 2016 09:40 am | Updated Date: Nov 05, 2016 09:40 am