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"Beating Indian teams in the past is giving us confidence" - Abahani Limited Dhaka head coach Mario Lemos ahead of AFC Cup 2022 play-off against ATK Mohun Bagan

Mario Lemos' Abahani Limited Dhaka have beaten Indian teams like Chennaiyin FC, Punjab FC and Bengaluru FC in the past. Image: Mario Lemos on Facebook
Mario Lemos' Abahani Limited Dhaka have beaten Indian teams like Chennaiyin FC, Punjab FC and Bengaluru FC in the past. Image: Mario Lemos on Facebook
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Ritam Basu

Kolkata giants ATK Mohun Bagan trounced Sri Lanka’s Blue Star SC 5-0 in their 2022 AFC Cup preliminary round 2 match at the Salt Lake Stadium on April 12, courtesy of goals from Joni Kauko (2), Manvir Singh (2) and David Williams.

The lopsided result helped the Mariners book a play-off berth where they’ll face Dhaka’s Abahani Limited at the same venue on April 19. The winner of the must-win contest will qualify for the group stage of the continental competition.

Despite making short work of the Sri Lankan Super League winners in the absence of key players like Roy Krishna, Liston Colaco, and Sandesh Jhingan, Juan Ferrando’s side cannot afford to breathe easy against their Bangladeshi counterparts. Abahani, who were handed a walkover against Maldives’ Valencia Club in their preliminary round fixture, are no pushovers.

Founded in 1972, Abahani have traditionally punched above their weight in the AFC Cup. The Sky Blue Brigade know a thing or two about defeating Indian clubs, having beaten two-time ISL winners Chennaiyin FC and 2017-18 I-League winners Punjab FC to reach the 2019 AFC Cup inter-zone semi-finals. They also pipped Bengaluru FC 2-0 in their AFC Cup group stage encounter in 2017.

Abahani have made the most number of AFC Cup appearances from Bangladesh and hold the distinction of becoming the first club from the country to reach the inter-zone semi-finals of the continental event. They are also the most successful outfit in the history of the Bangladesh Premier League and the Bangladesh Federation Cup, winning six and 12 titles respectively.

Abahani’s Portuguese head coach Mario Lemos believes that his side have got the attacking firepower and experience to stun the formidable ATK Mohun Bagan. Their overseas quartet of forwards Daniel Colindres and Dorielton, central midfielder Raphael Augusto and defender Milad Sheykhi Soleimani has been their forte and these players are ably aided by the local boys, many of whom feature regularly in the Bangladesh national team.

Unbeaten in their last five matches and currently placed second in the BPL standings, Abahani Limited reached Kolkata on Saturday morning. Sportskeeda caught up with Lemos for an exclusive chat the following day and asked him about Abahani’s chances against ATK Mohun Bagan, the prospect of playing in a packed Salt Lake Stadium, their in-form forward line, his ambitions of coaching an Indian side and much more. Here are the excerpts:


Q: Every Bangladeshi journalist I’ve spoken has said that Mario Lemos is Abahani Limited’s “main man”. What makes you so popular in Bangladesh?

Lemos: Ha ha! That’s flattering for me. One thing I’ve tried to implement since my arrival in Bangladesh is to change the mentality of the local players. Remember, we were the first Bangladeshi club to reach the AFC Cup inter-zone play-off semi-finals. We defeated a strong team like Chennaiyin FC that season. We were able to achieve that result because the local players had become mentally stronger. It’s all about working hard every day and making your opportunities count.

Q: Your opponents ATK Mohun Bagan thrashed Sri Lanka’s Blue Star SC 5-0 in their previous match, whereas you got a walkover against Maldives’ Valencia Club. Does that create extra pressure on your team?

Lemos: There’s no extra pressure on us. We all know that ATK Mohun Bagan are a very strong team. In fact, I’ve told my players that ATK Mohun Bagan are one of the strongest teams we’ll face this year. Anything can happen in football, you know. Yes, it’s true that they’ll play at their home ground and in front of their fans. They’ll definitely enjoy the home advantage, but we need to focus on our job and play our best game against them.

Q: Speaking about the home advantage, do you think the Bangladeshi players can be overawed by the atmosphere at the Salt Lake Stadium? Over 50,000 spectators are expected to fill the stands on Tuesday…

Lemos: To be honest, we are not used to playing in full stadiums. We have played in packed stadiums in our last two finals [the Federation Cup and the Independence Cup in 2021-22], but in Bangladesh, a full house means 15,000 people.

Maybe the 50,000 odd people will chant ATK Mohun Bagan’s name on Tuesday, but we’ve to make sure that the noise doesn't get to us. The local boys in my team will be nervous. We’re reminding ourselves that many of the local boys from my team played well for the Bangladesh national side against India at the same venue three years back. It was a full house too.

Q: Do you follow the Indian Super League regularly? What, according to you, are the main differences between the ISL and the Bangladesh Premier League?

Lemos: The ISL is miles ahead in terms of infrastructure, organization and quality of the pitches. Most of the grounds in Bangladesh are not that good, so the players are prone to injuries. It’s difficult to slide on such grounds. However, the standard is slowly getting better.

Q: Your star Brazilian forward Dorielton recently suffered an injury. Is he fit to start against ATK Mohun Bagan?

Lemos: Dori has a fifty-fifty chance of playing against ATK Mohun Bagan. He suffered an injury in our recent BPL match against Bashundhara Kings. We’ll get the doctor’s report soon and take a call. Hopefully, he can play on Tuesday. If he doesn’t, we have Nedo Turković as a backup.

Q: Turković played for the I-League side NEROCA FC a few years ago. His experience might come in handy for you…

Lemos: Yes, certainly. Nedo played for Swadhinata Krira Sangha last season and was supposed to leave Bangladesh this month. Fortunately, we managed to sign him as we were looking for Dori’s backup.

Q: What about Raphael Augusto? He is a two-time ISL champion, so he knows a lot about Indian football…

Lemos: Oh yes! I’ve been joking with him, saying, "Raphael, you know what? You should make the team for the ATK Mohun Bagan match." (laughs) He won the ISL twice for Chennaiyin FC and also played a season for Bengaluru FC. If I’m not wrong, I think he scored his first ISL goal at the Salt Lake Stadium. These are good signs for us (laughs). He knows most of the ATK Mohun Bagan players pretty well and is giving us valuable input. He has excellent leadership qualities.

Q: ATK Mohun Bagan have plenty of match-winners in their team. Which players are you most wary of?

Lemos: I’ve seen many of their matches and I think they are a very formidable side. Hugo Boumous is a fine player. He’s their best player in midfield, so we need to be careful with him. Joni Kauko, too, is a great player. He played in the Euro Cup last year, which shows his quality. [Roy] Krishma may not play this game. David Williams will be a big threat up front. Then you also have a fine centre-back in Tiri. I also admire the way [Prabir] Das plays. Overall, they are a very balanced team. We need to be wary of a lot of players (laughs).

Q: You defeated two strong Indian teams in Chennaiyin FC and Punjab FC (then Minerva Punjab) to secure an inter-zone semi-final berth in the 2019 edition of the AFC Cup. Do you think you can replicate the feat against ATK Mohun Bagan?

Lemos: It’s surely giving us confidence. You can win against Indian clubs if you stick to your plans and exploit their weaknesses. In the 2019 AFC Cup, we lost to Chennaiyin 0-1 in Ahmedabad, but won the reverse fixture 3-2 on our home turf. Even though we qualified for the knockouts, we should’ve won the first leg. We committed some mistakes in that game. If we can fix those mistakes, we have the potential to beat ATK Mohun Bagan.

Q: Which local players in your team should one watch out for?

Lemos: Five to six players from my team play for the Bangladesh national team regularly. Watch out for Nabib Newaj Jibon, Tutul Hossain Badsha, Nurul Naium Faisal and Mohamed Sohel Rana.

Q: What is your preferred style of play?

Lemos: I generally prefer direct football in Bangladesh, but I also prefer the possession-based style of play. Our playing style has changed a bit this season. Earlier, it was a bit difficult to play with possession, but with technically strong players like Raphael and Daniel coming in, we’re now able to keep more possession and build up attacks using short and quick passes.

Q: Mohun Bagan’s arch-rivals East Bengal are trying to rope in Bangladeshi conglomerate Bashundhara Group as their new investors. Has the development created any buzz in the Bangladesh football fraternity?

Lemos: Of course, it has! Bashundhara Kings are like Manchester City or Chelsea of Bangladesh. They have a lot of financial resources (laughs). Bangladeshi football fans have been talking about East Bengal for the past month. Everyone in Bangladesh is aware of East Bengal’s rich legacy. They are a very famous club. I don’t know in what capacity Bashundhara would collaborate with East Bengal Club, but it would be great for the football fraternities of both India and Bangladesh if they come together.

Q: Do you have ambitions of coaching in India?

Lemos: I would love to coach an Indian side. The leagues in India are more competitive and the infrastructure is quite good as well. I have a UEFA A License, so I can’t coach an ISL side right now. However, I’ll get my Pro License soon. I have had a wonderful time at Abahani and I’m quite satisfied with my role here. It would be great to receive an offer from India, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll have no regrets. Indian clubs can always call me as I’m only 40 minutes away (laughs).

Q: Last question. Since you are a Portuguese, what do you think are Portugal’s chances at this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar?

Lemos: As a team, Portugal haven’t clicked together in the past couple of years. It might be Cristiano Ronaldo’s last World Cup, so the whole team will be desperate to win the trophy for him. Players like Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Jota have played quite well for their respective clubs, but they now need to translate those performances into international success. We may not have qualified for the World Cup had North Macedonia not beaten Italy. We might reach the knockouts, but I don’t think we can be the champions.


live poll LIVE POLL

Q. Do you want to see Mario Lemos as the head coach of an Indian football club?

Yes

No

52 votes so far

Edited by Samya Majumdar
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