Bengaluru FC have a perfect record in the Maldives and the asking will be no less when they take on TC Sports Club in the first leg of the 2018 AFC Cup playoff round at the National Stadium in Male on Tuesday.
With a spot in Group E at stake, both Bengaluru and TC Sports Club crossed their first hurdle last month after beating their respective opponents in the preliminary round. While the Maldivian side had it easy over Bangladesh's Saif Sporting, winning 4-1 on aggregate, Bengaluru were frustrated with a goalless draw in the first leg at Bhutan's Transport United, only to come back with a 3-0 win at home the following week.
The Indian side now travel to the tiny island nation, coming up against 'Trust and Care Sports Club', who make their debut in a continental competition after they finished runners-up to New Radiant in the 2017 Dhivehi Premier League.
Interestingly, Bengaluru FC have won both of their previous matches played in Male. In 2015, Sunil Chhetri's brace downed Maziya S&RC 2-1 in an AFC Cup group game. The previous season, John Johnsons's last-minute header sealed a 1-0 win over the same opponents.
While both these players are on the rosters of the 2016 runners-up, Albert Roca will choose to rotate heavily given their crucial Indian Super League (ISL) match against FC Pune City on Friday. "It’s something (rotating) we’ve been doing often and it works for us more often than not because we have a hungry squad that is willing to grab the chances it gets," said head coach Roca.
Antoni Dovale is certain to be the only foreigner in the lineup as Rahul Bheke might get a look in to shore up the defense. All of the three goalscorers from the last cup assignment (Boithang Haokip, Daniel Lalhlimpuia and Thongkhosiem 'Semboi' Haokip) are set to start while youngsters Prasanth Kalinga, Cletus Fernandes and Leon Augustine might be called upon from the bench.
"The game against TC Sports Club is going to be a tougher challenge than the one we faced in Bhutan. They have made it to this stage on the back of two good games against the team from Bangladesh. Their confidence along with being comfortable with the humid weather that we aren’t used to, makes the challenge bigger," the Spanish coach added in his pre-match comments.
On the other hand, the hosts who are enjoying their maiden foray into continental club competition will view this match as one of their biggest in the club's history. Much of the onus will fall on Kyrgyz playmaker Anatoliy Vlasichev whose four goals, including a hat-trick in the second leg helped the side sail past their Bangladeshi opponents.
Dymitry Asnin, the goalkeeper from Belarus who broke his hand has been sidelined for a month and Ibrahim Nadheem Adam is set to reprise his role between the sticks as coach Mohamed Nizam will field the same side.
"We have to believe that Bengaluru is a tough team, but TC Sports club will try to get a result from own team strength. And also will try to take home advantage. In many ways Indian football is on the top," he said.
While Bengaluru FC are in the middle of their domestic season, having already qualified for the ISL playoffs, being the first team to do so in their debut season nonetheless, it is still pre-season for TC Sports Club.
Furthermore, domestic football is put on hold at the moment after a 15-day state of emergency in the country is due to end on 20 February. As a result, TC Sports Club's Charity Shield fixture against New Radiant, originally scheduled for 6 February was postponed indefinitely - a match that was to serve as a warm-up to the crucial encounter against Bengaluru.
Kick-off is at 21:30 IST.
TC SPORTS CLUB
Injured: Dymitry Asnin
Key Players: Anatoliy Vlasichev, Ishan Ibrahim
Absent: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Dimas Delgado, Sunil Chhetri, Udanta Singh
Key Players: Daniel Lalhlimpuia, Boithang Haokip
Mohamed Hamdhoon is a senior football writer in Maldives and writes for Mihaaru, one of the most reputed newspapers of the country.
Follow Mohamed Hamdhoon on Twitter - @MohamedHamdhoon