Hero ISL
Hyderabad FC, ATK Mohun Bagan battle for AFC Cup Preliminary Round slot
02 May 2023

Vaibhav Raghunandan
AIFF Media Team

KOZHIKODE: Hyderabad FC will take on ATK Mohun Bagan FC in the Hero Club Playoffs, to earn a spot in the Preliminary Round of the AFC Cup 2023-24. Hyderabad FC have qualified for the playoffs on the basis of having won the Hero Indian Super League 2021-22. ATK Mohun Bagan have qualified on the basis of having won the recently concluded Hero ISL 2022-23. The playoff game will be played at the EMS Corporation Stadium at 7 pm IST on Wednesday, May 3, 2023.

With both teams suffering disappointing campaigns in the Hero Super Cup — both were knocked out in the group stage of the competition — the play-off game provides an opportunity to not just end the season on a high but also secure a continental spot to kick off the next season.

For Hyderabad FC, this is a unique opportunity to create history for the club and mark a first-ever appearance in Asian competitions. While coach Manolo Marquez was cautious to temper expectations by saying that the game had arrived at a tough time in the season — as a last fixture — he also said it would be an emotional moment for him and his coaching staff, who will leave the club at the end of the campaign.

"It is our last dance," he said. "So obviously the emotions are going to be high for us at the club in this game. We are up against a strong team, and it is a team that I have, in my time at the club, perhaps played the most, so I know the challenge in front of us."

Hyderabad and ATK Mohun Bagan have clashed four times this season alone, with just two goals scored from open play all season. Most memorably, the two clubs also clashed in the Hero ISL semi-finals. Both ended up in goalless draws at the end of regulation time and ATK Mohun Bagan won the shootout.

"I think we played in the first leg of that tie," Marquez said. "But I will admit that they were the better side in the second leg. We know their strengths and we know how they play, but I think importantly, we will need to concentrate on our game."

For the reigning Hero ISL champions, securing qualification to the preliminary round of the AFC Cup will kickstart a long process of retribution for the heartbreak they suffered at the beginning of the season.

Having made it to the Inter-zone Playoff Semi-finals of the AFC Cup 2022-23, ATK Mohun Bagan went on to lose 1-3 to Kuala Lumpur City FC at the VYBK in Kolkata. While the loss itself may have been a tough pill to digest in front of home fans, what made it all worse was that they conceded two goals in quick succession in injury time, after having scored the equaliser in the 90th minute themselves.

Coach Juan Ferrando, while keen to downplay the impact of that result and its motivation on his team, admitted that qualification would be a huge plus for the club. "A lot of things have changed since then, an entire season in between in fact," he said. "Asian competitions are very important for clubs and players, I believe. It allows them a chance to grow, to get better, and to experience other styles of football. I personally also have the experience of taking Indian clubs to competitions in Asia (Ferrando was at the helm of FC Goa when they played the Asian Champions League) and last year was a tough result. But for us right now, the focus is on the game immediately ahead.

"We know Hyderabad are a strong team who play a very disciplined game and do not allow many goals. We know their quality. It is up to the players and us to deliver the result."

The Hero Club Playoffs game between Hyderabad FC and ATK Mohun Bagan will kick off at 7 pm IST on May 3. It will be broadcast live on the Sony Sports 2 and streamed on FanCode.

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