WHEN BENGALURU FC TOOK ON the North Korean club side April 25th SC, even the staunchest of their fans couldn't give them much of a chance.
Facing one of the best clubs from a country that regularly plays in the World Cup, Bengaluru FC were doing something they have been doing since they began their journey; being that one club from India that dares to punch up at the Asian level.
Their dream run in the AFC Cup last year saw them overcome a number of difficult opponents that were, on paper, favourites against them; Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim being the most notable example. And their loss in the final to Iraq's Al Quwa Al Jawiya wasn't a slam dunk affair; it was a razor-close one nil loss to one of the West Asian heavyweights in the tournament.
Despite multiple setbacks earlier in the year, though, Bengaluru FC have mounted yet another AFC Cup campaign that can match and perhaps even exceed their achievement from last year. And their very last hurdle when it comes to claiming a place again in the mega continental fixture called the AFC Cup final is Tajikistan's FC Istiklol.
There are many similarities between FC Istoklol and Bengaluru FC's old international rival Johor Darul Ta'zim. Both have high budgets when compared to the Blues. Both play out of stadiums where a fiercely loyal throng of supporters make their loud presence felt on every matchday. Both share a burning ambition to make their presence felt in Asia. And both are young clubs who are still in the process of consolidating their identity; just like Bengaluru FC.
And just like Bengaluru FC and Johor Darul Ta'zim, Istiklol have also quickly become the most dominant club in their top division league. They are about to win the Tajik League for the fourth time in a row while they have already bagged the Tajik Cup for the last 4 years.
As Bengaluru FC take to the field in a packed house tomorrow at Dushanbe's Central Republican Stadium, they will be facing a foe that is unfamiliar to them, yet familiar in many ways. So as you wait for the mega fixture to kick off, make yourself familiar with the biggest names in the enemy camp...