Mumbai City FC players can fancy rubbing shoulders with Brazilian superstar Neymar in the upcoming AFC Champions League season after the Indian Super League team was clubbed with Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal in the group stage of the continental club showpiece.
Al Hilal, the third-place finishers in the 2022–23 Saudi Pro League, had recently signed Neymar, a former Barcelona FC — with whom he won UEFA Champions League title — and Paris Saint German player. Neymar’s new Saudi club is also the most successful team in the AFC Champions League history, having won the title four times, besides being runners-up on five occasions.
Al Hilal have bolstered their squad for the upcoming season with some big-name signings including Neymar Jr, Kalidou Koulibaly, Ruben Neves, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Yassine Bounou and Aleksandar Mitrovic. The group stage of the AFC Champions League is a home-and-away affair and thus it will be interesting to see if Neymar is seen in action at the Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex in Pune, Mumbai City FC’s home venue.
If Neymar travels to Pune, it would be an opportunity of a lifetime for Indian fans to catch a glimpse of him playing in the country.
FC Nassaji Mazandaran of Iran and PFC Navbahor Namangan of Uzbekistan are the other two sides in Group D.
The draw of AFC Champions League 2023-24 group stage was held at the Asian Football Confederation headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
Mumbai City FC made it to the AFC Champions League group stage for the second straight season, following their League Shield win during the ISL 2022-23 and the subsequent play-off versus Jamshedpur FC.
Meanwhile, Cristiano Roanldo’s Saudi side Al Nassr were drawn with Persepolis FC of Iran, Al Duhail SC of Qatar and FC Istiklol of Tajikistan in Group E.
The 10 group winners, along with the three best runners-up across the five West Zone groups, will make it to the round of 16.
Last season, Mumbai City FC scripted a couple of victories over Al Quwa Al Jawiya of Iraq, finishing in second place in Group B with seven points.
From next season onwards, no Indian club will get a direct entry into Asia’s top-tier club competition as a result of a revamp in the competition structure, the Asian Football Confederation has said earlier.
In the second-tier AFC Cup draw, Indian clubs Odisha FC and Mohun Bagan Super Giant have been clubbed with Bashundhara Kings of Bangladesh and Maziya S&RC of Maldives.
Odisha made it to the competition by virtue of winning Super Cup 2023, followed by a play-off triumph over Gokulam Kerala.
Mohun Bagan, the ISL 2022-23 champions, won the play-off versus Hyderabad FC. They then beat Nepal’s Machhindra FC in Preliminary Round 2 before winning against Bangladesh’s Abahani Limited Dhaka in the play-off.
The AFC Cup match format for the group stage remains the same as the ACL, with the group winners heading into the inter-zone play-off semifinals.
While Odisha will play their home games at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, Mohun Bagan will have Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan as their base.