ISL 2018-19: Bengaluru FC have the tools to continue trophy-winning streak, but will have to fight weight of expectations
Bengaluru FC certainly have the processes in place to virtually guarantee a top-four finish. But can the club go the distance this season?
Continuity is the buzzword for Bengaluru FC (BFC) ahead of the 2018-19 season of the Indian Super League (ISL), which kicks off on Saturday.
Under new head coach Carles Cuadrat, who was assistant coach at the club till late 2017, BFC will look to play with a philosophy made familiar at the club by departing head coach Albert Roca. And they will hope to go one step further this season after a runners-up finish on their ISL debut.
Earlier in the year, Roca opted not to renew his contract after an eventful two years in Bengaluru. During his reign, BFC reached the finals of the AFC Cup and the ISL and lifted two domestic cup competitions. The club’s style of play under Roca was influenced by his time as an assistant coach at Barcelona and it won him plenty of admirers in India as well as Asia.
New post-Roca era
Now, Catalonia-born Cuadrat, who served as Roca’s assistant coach at both El Salvador and BFC, will look to advance his senior’s philosophy. He has experience as player and coach in Barcelona’s famed youth system.
The Spaniard had left BFC at the end of 2017 due to health troubles but had returned to the club in June of this year for his maiden stint as a head coach. His first assignment, a baptism by fire, did not go well: BFC were knocked out of the AFC Cup by Turkmen club Altyn Asyr in August.
Interestingly, Cuadrat will be the first assistant coach to become head coach in ISL. Prior to this year, ISL’s stringent rules would not have allowed him to take over reins at BFC. But rule changes ahead of this season made this appointment possible. One Indian coach refers to these amendments as the “Carles rule”, insinuating that this was a rule relaxation made specifically to accommodate BFC’s new coach.
Either way, it is a step in the right direction for ISL. Clubs should be allowed to appoint who they deem fit, irrespective of their background, rather than having to be babysit by the league’s central authorities. Cuadrat certainly doesn’t have lesser credentials than, say, Nicolas Anelka, who had joined as marquee player-coach of Mumbai City in 2015.
BFC have ensured continuity of the squad as well. ATK and Chennaiyin FC, the only two clubs to win ISL (twice each), have shown that year-on-year consistency in squad selection is the key to success in a league where short-termism is rampant amongst clubs.
The club has retained 12 players from the previous season in addition to welcoming back three others, namely defenders Rino Anto — who remains a fan favourite — and Gursimrat Singh Gill and goalkeeper Soram Poirei Anganba.
The major departures are defenders John Johnson, the Englishman having moved on to ATK after five seasons with BFC, and Subhasish Bose, who has joined Mumbai City.
Sunil Chhetri, in his sixth season at BFC, will continue to lead. Now 34, he appears to be getting better by age. Last season, Chhetri was named the ISL’s best player, the first Indian to win the award, in a season in which he scored 14 goals. His partnership with Miku (who scored 15 goals in ISL) and understanding with Udanta Singh forms a formidable attacking trio.
Add to this, new signing Chencho Gyeltshen, who is fondly called the “Bhutanese Ronaldo”. Chencho made a name for himself in Minerva Punjab FC’s fairy tale I-League triumph last season, scoring seven impactful goals and running defences ragged. He was named the league’s best forward. His versatility will be of great use to BFC: at Minerva, Chencho played in the right, left and central forward positions whenever required.
Other foreign recruits
Spanish midfielder Xisco Hernandez joins compatriot Dimas Delgado and Australia’s Erik Paartalu to make up the club’s foreign contingent in midfield. India’s Kean Lewis, a promising winger, is another major addition in this department.
Meanwhile, Spaniard Albert Serran will join fellow Spaniard Juanan in defence and have the unenviable task of replacing his long-time partner Johnson. Also, in the club’s defensive ranks is new-face Sairuat Kima, among India’s most promising defenders, who failed to get a game at Jamshedpur last season.
Rahul Bheke, Harmanjot Khabra and Nishu Kumar will continue to add versatility and guile to BFC’s defence, where Anto’s addition has added more depth.
Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who extended his contract at the club till 2023, remains the club’s first choice although there’s been a visible dip in his form, and aura, of late. Sandhu doesn’t appear to be the intimidating safe house he used to be from a year or two ago and he has been letting in soft goals. His two errors in the AFC Cup home leg, for instance, made the tie irretrievable for BFC.
Expectations remain high
Anything less than winning the ISL will likely be seen as a disappointment at BFC, such has been the level of success at the club and the expectations that come with it. It has been five trophies in five years since the club’s inception in 2013 but a league title has been missing since 2016.
Last season, BFC finished the league stage eight points clear at the top — a level of dominance only seen once before, since semi-professional and professional football was introduced in India in 1996 — before faltering at the final hurdle to Chennaiyin FC.
On Sunday, as fate would have it, Bengaluru FC will host champions Chennaiyin FC in their opening fixture; a fixture the club lost twice last season. It is an immediate opportunity to banish the ghosts of last season and start fresh.
BFC certainly have the processes in place to virtually guarantee a top-four finish. But can the club go the distance this season?
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