Chennaiyin, Minerva look to put domestic woes behind as AFC Cup looms

Chennaiyin players celebrate scoring against Bengaluru in the 2018 ISL final. AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

The AFC Cup is the second tier of Asia's continental club competition. The group stages will see 36 teams compete in nine groups of four each, with each group divided geographically. India's representation comes by the way of 2017-18 I-league champions Minerva Punjab and 2017-18 ISL champions Chennaiyin FC, both of whom are clubbed in the South Zone group - Group E. The two teams will play each other on Wednesday at 7:30 PM IST in Ahmedabad - the designated venue for Chennaiyin's home matches in the tournament.

Joining them are Nepal's seven-time champions Manang Marshyangdi and Bangladesh's six time champions, Abahani Dhaka who were present in the group stages of the AFC Cup for the past two seasons. The team that tops the group is the only team that will advance to the knockouts.

What are the prospects of the two Indian clubs in this competition?

Chennaiyin FC

How did they get here?

By beating Colombo FC 1-0 across two legs in their South Zone qualifying playoff (0-0 away, 1-0 home)

How did their domestic season go?

As poorly as it could have. They finished rock bottom with 9 points in 18 games (6 points below the next worst, Kerala Blasters), scoring the least amount of goals in the league, and conceding the most.

Player to watch out for?

Even in a dismal season, the Brazilian Raphael Augusto was a lone, muscular, gifted bright spot. Chennaiyin will need him to be at his irrepressible best.

What can change?

Chennaiyin desperately missed local lad Dhanpal Ganesh this season, but he returned in the Super Cup win against Mumbai City and will be a welcome boost in this competition. If he can combine as he did last season with Augusto, and if Anirudh Thapa can work his magic alongside, they might have too much in midfield for the other sides in the group.

Up front, Jeje Lalpheklua's long search for form seems to have been fruitful (he scored the lone goal against Colombo, and one against Mumbai City) and CK Vineeth has it in him to occasionally come with the outrageous, the opener against Mumbai being a prime example.

The question is, with John Gregory having announced his departure from the club post this season, how motivated will the squad be? The stakes don't get higher than a spot in the AFC Cup knockouts, though.

Minerva Punjab FC

How did they get here?

Winning the I-league granted them entry to the AFC Champions League qualifying playoffs, where they were trounced 4-0 by Saipa FC of Iran. This dropped them down to the AFC Cup group stages.

How did their domestic season go?

Not much better than Chennaiyin's. They finished 10th out of 11 I-league clubs, with 17 points in 19 -- although, as an encapsulation of the confusion engulfing Indian football, they still have a match to be played against Real Kashmir to officially complete their domestic season.

Player to watch out for?

Mahmoud Al Amna. The Syrian was specifically bought into the team during the last part of the season in a bid to strengthen the squad and Minerva will need all of the 36-year-old's guile to become contenders.

What can change?

Not replacing the cutting edge ruthlessness of Chencho Gyeltshen with someone of similar quality proved costly for Minerva in their domestic season, and they haven't really played well ahead of the AFC Cup either. They will hope Samuel Lalmuanpuia, recently transferred in from relegated Shillong Lajong, can be the answer to their persistent goal-scoring problem.

Amna's experience in midfield, though, could prove the decisive factor in any change Sachin Badadhe wants to engineer. If they can channel play through the Syrian, a transformation may well be possible.