ISL semifinal: How Bengaluru FC ended the blues to stand on the brink of final

For long, Bengaluru FC looked like a team competing for the wooden spoon but now stand just one game away from the ISL 2022-23 final.

Ujwal Singh March 12, 2023 10:53:43 IST
ISL semifinal: How Bengaluru FC ended the blues to stand on the brink of final

Bengaluru FC need to avoid a defeat against Mumbai City FC in ISL semi-final second leg match to reach the final. Image: Twitter/IndSuperLeague

After back-to-back mid-table finishes, another under-par season was not an option for Bengaluru FC. With two I-League titles and one Indian Super League (ISL) crown besides winning Federation Cup and Super Cup, the club has seen regular success since its inception in 2013. But two poor seasons – from 2020 to 2022 – threatened to malign their legacy.

Things had to change in 2022-23. Former Leeds United player and manager Simon Grayson was brought in to revive the fortunes of the Blues. The resurgence began with the Durand Cup win in September as Bengaluru became the first club to win every major championship in India.

Next obvious step was to win the ISL trophy, which the team last won in 2019.

What has transpired since has been the stuff of dreams.

At the start of 2023, Bengaluru were eighth in the 11-team league with 10 points from 12 matches. Despite six teams qualifying for playoffs, Bengaluru’s progress looked difficult before. That changed when they went on an eight-game winning streak to reach the knockout rounds.

They then defeated Kerala Blasters in the playoff, and currently hold a 1-0 lead in the semi-finals after beating League Shield winners Mumbai City FC in the first leg.

The tactical tweak

The red-hot streak is a far cry from where things stood two months ago. The biggest contributing factor behind the revival has been Bengaluru’s ability to find the perfect system to harness the full potential of the squad.

With top players Roy Krishna, Sandesh Jhingan and Javi Hernandez joining Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the club had a formidable squad, but being good on paper doesn’t necessarily translate into being good on the pitch. Despite winning a trophy early on, Grayson took his time finding his preferred lineup and team formation. At one stage in the campaign, Bengaluru had a new formation each game.

From 3-4-3, 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, Grayson included all his experiences and learnings in finding a solution which finally arrived with the 3-5-2 formation. The change to 3-5-2 has worked both ways for Grayson.

It has given Javi Hernandez necessary freedom to venture forward and look for goal-scoring opportunities with Rohit Kumar staying back to do the dirty work in the midfield. With six goals and five assists, Hernandez has been Bengaluru’s biggest attacking threat. It is something he was unable to do in other formations which asked him to keep the opposition quiet as well.

The three centre-backs and the pairing of Rohit and Suresh Singh Wangjam in the midfield have allowed Bengaluru to close down spaces, forcing the opponents to take wide routes and make defending easy as a group.

Bengaluru’s 21 of 29 goals this league season have come in the last 10 games. They have only conceded six goals in last 10 games. In contrast, 17 came in the first 12 games.

Sivasakthi, goals and wins

Sivasakthi Narayanan is another protagonist in this incredible turnaround. The 22-year-old had given a glimpse of his talent in the trophy-winning Durand Cup campaign, where he scored in the final, but he took time to get comfortable with life in ISL. After featuring in the starting XIs consistently, he was dropped to the bench as The Blues struggled in front of goal. Cut to March and Sivasakthi is Bengaluru’s top-scorer this season with six goals.

The start of Bengaluru’s 10-game winning streak began with Grayson dropping legendary Sunil Chhetri to accommodate Sivasakthi in the lineup on 6 January for the game against NorthEast United FC. The young Tamil Nadu striker scored in the 2-1 win and Bengaluru haven’t even drawn a game since.

His ability to make runs behind the defenders opened up a whole new dimension for Bengaluru as they started stretching the defensive walls of the opposition.

Champion Chhetri

Down but not out. Chhetri may be 38 and his legs may not have the same acceleration as before, but his mentality is as lethal as ever. His experience is worth its weight in gold. The perfect example of it was his quick free-kick in the high-stakes playoff game against Kerala Blasters.

With the game in the extra time and Kerala doing well to thwart all attempts on goal from Bengaluru, Chhetri’s quick thinking led to the only goal on the night before Kerala staged a walk-off and forfeited the game.

Relegated to a substitute role, Chhetri has started to find the big goals at the business end. After breaking the hearts of Blasters fans, Chhetri scored the only goal for Bengaluru in the semi-final first leg tie against Mumbai, once again coming off the bench.

Besides goals and ideal formations, there’s another thing that has helped the 2018-19 champions to stay alive in contention for a spot in the final, and that is the character of the side. It is a cliche in sport but a deciding factor so often. Something that cannot be quantified, but can be felt in the winning run.

With the likes of Chhetri, Gurpreet, Jhingan, Krishna and Javi in the quad, players who have done all and seen all in ISL, it was only a matter of time before Bengaluru found their rhythm and became the powerhouse we are used to seeing them as.

“Belief (is the secret behind our journey). The amount of belief that we have in our team is unwavering, even though things were going well. BFC’s motto, the motto of the team, and the motto of the club are that — BFC always bounces back. Even though we have seen tough times before as well as in this season, BFC will always find a way to bounce back. We’ll find a way to win, and that’s what we have been doing,” Gurpreet recently told the ISL website.

This experience will come in handy for Bengaluru once again when they take on Mumbai in the semi-final second leg tie on Sunday. The gaffer and the players will know, incredible as their winning streak maybe, it will soon be forgotten if they fail to apply the finishing touches to it.

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