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Football

RFDL: Low profile Muthoot FA aim to stun Bengaluru FC in 3rd place play-off

Kochi-based Muthoot FA - by far the most attractive side in the RFDL having reached the semifinals overcoming all odds - will look to finish their campaign on a high.

RFDL: Low profile Muthoot FA aim to stun Bengaluru FC in 3rd place play-off
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Muthoot FA take on Bengaluru FC in the 3rd place play-off of Reliance Foundation Development League in Navi Mumbai on May 18, 2024. (Photo credit: Muthoot FA/Instagram) 

By

Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 17 May 2024 2:43 AM GMT

Navi Mumbai: The unheralded young boys of Muthoot FA will look to make a name for themselves when they face off against well-off youngsters of Bengaluru FC at the Reliance Foundation Development League (RFDL) here at Reliance Corporate Park on Friday.

Travelled to Mumbai by train from Kochi for the final stage of the tournament unlike their counterparts, Muthoot FA have a point to prove.

Although it is a third-place playoff, something more precious than a position is at stake, the pride of winning against an Indian Super League (ISL) side's youth team, who are looking to transition to the top division of the Indian league, and potentially a spot in the Next Gen Cup, to be held in England this year.

Kochi-based Muthoot FA - by far the most attractive side of the two-month-long tournament having reached the semifinals overcoming all the odds before losing in penalties against East Bengal after a hard-fought 3-3 draw in the semifinals - will look to finish their campaign on a high.

However, a team built up by well-groomed players of the Muthoot academy under the tutelage of coach Anees Koraliyadan of Mallapuram will have their task cut out against Bengaluru FC, the two-time defending champions who lost to Punjab FC in the last four.

Coach Anees confident

"For us, the RFDL is a big platform; it gives our players a precious opportunity to test their skills and preparations they had made. The standard here is high. It is a big exposure for them to improve their skills and develop their game. I consider the tournament as one of the best inventions in Indian football. The names itself is Development, it resonates well with the outcome," Anees told The Bridge after Thursday's training, suggesting what the league means to his players.

"In India, we do not have many youth-level leagues. Here the U20 boys playing, with a maximum of three U23 players being allowed to feature in the playing XI," he added.

"Our focus is on qualifying for the Next Gen Cup, my team deserve to play there after having such a wonderful campaign. I hope we get there. The academy has been on a remarkble run of form this year. The credit goes to all the academy boys because they have done well despite competing against boys from the popular ISL clubs," Anees insisted.

Muthoot FA - the only academy in the mix of three ISL clubs - began their RFDL campaign with a strong showing in the regional qualifiers in the Kerala zone in February, overpowering established sides like Kerala Blasters FC and Gokulam Kerala FC.

Proving their defensive solidity, the academy conceded 13 goals compared to 27, scored by their players in the group stage. Making a further statement, the academy did not even concede a single goal at the national group stage, showcasing their defensive prowess. Salahudeen Adnan K scored the highest number of goals for the side, netting 10.

However, Anees, an A Licence holder who has been overseeing Muthoot FA's progress since their inception eight years ago, was disappointed that his team missed out on the chance to make it to the final. But he did not want to linger his thought about the squandered chance.

Muthoot FA players during their training session at the Reliance Corporate Park in Navi Mumbai ahead of their 3rd place playoff against Bengaluru FC in RFDL. (Photo credit: Sudipta Biswas/The Bridge)

"The team, though disappointed, is focused on the upcoming third-place match against Bengaluru FC. We need to finish the tournament on a high note. We have learned from our mistakes from the semifinals and worked on those areas for the Bengaluru FC match. The players are determined to showcase their skills and end the season with a strong performance,โ€ Anees stressed.

In Thursday's practice, he made his players train more in the defensive zone, with the goalkeeper calling for his players to jam the attacking zone, indicating that a counterattacking the game against Bengaluru FC could prevail.

Proud coach

While Anees missed the chance to helm his team in the final, he still has a reason to be immensely proud. While speaking to this correspondent, he was being greeted by players from East Bengal, the club that signed four of his pupils from Muthoot FA.

"Four of my players are here with East Bengal," said Anees, testifying his coaching credentials. "They roped them in Adil Muhammad, Musharaf, Naseeb, and Vishnu after I groomed them from the age of 12-13. Most of our players are from Kerala. We scouted them through open trials at our academy or enrolled them after being recommended by the village coaches," remarked Anees.

'We're motivated': Bibiano

For BFC coach Bibiano Fernandes, too, the focus is qualifying for the Next Gen Cup.

"We are all motivated, we know the winning team will qualify for the Next Gen Cup. But development is more important, and from that point of view, this league holds immense importance because this has given my players a chance to speed up their transition. Overall, it has been an enriching exprience playing in the RFDL," said Bibiano.

He will also keep a keen eye on his strikers in the game against Muthoot FA.

"For my players, this match, in the backdrop of Sunil Chhetri's international retirement, holds immense importance. While this season's RFDL has played a pivotal role in developing the players, making them more competitive and polished, now they will be extra motivated to prove themselves on the big stage. With Chhetri unlikely to stretch himself long at the BFC after his international retirement, if these players do well, we may find his potential replacement in the BFC. The future is bright, we look to finish with a win," observed Bibiano.

One player in the spotlight in Friday's match will be Bengaluru FC's Monirul Molla, the 19-year-old striker who dazzled scoring 13 goals, the most by a player in the third season of the RFDL. With Monirul's rise already in the offing with eight appearances in the ISL 2023-24, this performance will further raise his stature in the BFC ranks.

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