CHENNAI CITY FC ARE ABOUT TO make history, as the first ever club from Tamil Nadu to play in the AFC Champions League preliminary stage.
The reigning Champions of India are facing a steep uphill task on their very first appearance in an AFC tournament; taking on one of the most successful clubs from Bahrain.
Al Riffa Football Club, who were established more than half a century ago as West Riffa, have won 12 Bahraini Premier League titles, and reached the semi-finals of AFC Cup back in 2010. They have not played in the AFC Champions League group stages since 2004, and as they travel to Ahmedabad to face Chennai City, they are looking to end that streak of absence from the highest club championship of Asia.
Chennai City FC, who went on a dream run to claim the top division title last season, have been struggling to maintain for this time around. Their campaign in the Sheikh Kamal International Club Cup, an international debut for the club, was a mixed experience with back to back losses, some in very controversial fashion. Then in the I-League they struggled to maintain form; after 6 matches they have acquired only 8 points, with 2 wins and 2 draws; languishing at the 4th place 5 points behind the league leaders Mohun Bagan.
Off the field, they have made many strides; selling Pedro Manzi, who scored 21 goals for them in I-League last season, to Japanese club Albirex Nilgata for a tranfer fee that's the highest earned by any Indian club ever for a single player's sale. They won the case against the erstwhile Pune City over the latter's flouting of rules trying to sign Nestor Gordillo. They are also financially in a better spot, having signed a deal with FC Basel who have acquired controlling stakes in the club.
But whether that has resulted in them strengthening the squad ahead of their Asian championship debut is an open question at the moment. A day ahead of their ACL qualifier match, head coach Akbar Nawas is still in reinforcement mode; they have just brought over 19 year old midfielder Jan Uzangu from FC Basel. Uzangu won't be available for the match against Al Riffa.
Adolfo Miranda Araujo, known commonly as Fito, has started twice and scored twice in important matches for CCFC; and the midfield has been improving somewhat after a shaky start with the likes of Katsumi Yusa, Syed Suhail Pasha, Sri Ram, Balakrishnan, Charles, Jockson and P Raju providing a dependable presence.
The defence, though, remains a cause for concern. CCFC have not had a clean sheet since they beat TRAU 1-0 back on the 1st of December. And twice in the last three matches (where they absorbed 6 goals) they have taken a lead by two goals or more and then conceded two; dropping points on one occasion.
So, if Akbar Nawas can somehow produce a goal against Al Riffa, then the question arises if they are capable of supplementing it with their defence.
Al Riffa, who had a shaky start to their Bahraini Premier League campaign with two losses (albeit hard fought ones), have since steadied their ship. They have been unbeaten in their last 5 matches, with 4 victorties and 3 clean sheets, across the league and King's Cup. They have also tasted silverware; winning both the Bahraini King's Cup and Bahraini Super Cup. Although they are currently 7th in the league, they have played a game less; and a win in their next match would bring them 1 point away from league leaders Al Hidd.
Simply put, they are coming in with good form, a dangerous attacking contingent led by Kamil Al Aswad and Alhassane Keita, and a defence that has stood up to the recent tests it has faced. In each of those departments, Chennai City have lagged behind in a pound-for-pound comparison. There's no doubt that Al Riffa will be favourites on 14th January in Ahmedabad.
It's nothing new for Indian clubs to face tough opponents in AFC Champions League preliminary stages. So far the only club to register a win in this modern form of the tournament are Mohun Bagan who beat Tampines Rovers from Singapore. Since then, India have been moved from the East Asian bracket to the West; and the quality opponents Indian clubs are facing has gone up.
The winners of the match on 14th January will take on Iranian club Shahr Khodro away from home on 21st January in the Reliminary round 2. The winner of that match will travel to Qatar to take on Al-Sailiya in the Play-off round. So on paper there's very little hope of Chennai City going through three strong West Asian opponents to get into the AFC Champions League group stage.
As things stand, the only way we're seeing an Indian club in ACL is by availing the benefit of ACL's expansion from 2021.
But even if Chennai City are facing a potentially insurmountable challenge in ACL preliminary stage, it's still valuable experience and a cause to celebrate. It's a proud moment for Tamil Nadu football, and a trial by fire for the CCFC contingent who, if unable to make it to ACL group stage, will play in AFC Cup with the likes of Bengluru FC and Bashundhara Kings in their group.
All in all, the Al Riffa match will be a tough outing that footballers dream of and maybe a breakout moment for some of the players in the team. Whatever the result, the heart they show will set the tone for the rest of the season for Chennai City FC; whether in domestic football or in Asia.