Guwahati: Bengaluru FC have been the undisputed top dog in the Indian Super League (ISL) since their inclusion in the franchise-based competition in 2017. A total of 74 points across the league stages of the two campaigns bear testimony to their dominance, especially considering the team with the second-highest points tally across the same time frame is FC Goa, who are 10 points worse off in comparison.
Aiming to become the first ever ISL team to reach consecutive finals, Bengaluru would have precious little to show for their performances if they fail to replicate their consistency of the league stage in the potentially three remaining knockout ties.
NorthEast United, a team making its maiden appearance at the semi-final stage of the ISL, provide the first test for the two-time I-League champions, with the two teams set to meet in the first leg at Guwahati on Thursday.
History doesn’t bode too well for ISL table toppers as none of the previous league stage winners went on to win the title. The Indian football faithful remain divided on the correctness of the format to crown the best team as champions, but there’s little to ponder for teams as long as the current set-up remains.
“At the beginning of the season, I said that it’s not important to finish first or fourth, it’s important to qualify for the playoffs. We are now in the playoffs and we have three games to get the trophy,” a pragmatic Bengaluru coach Carles Cuadrat said, stressing the need for his players to restart again ahead of the semi-final first leg clash.
The Spaniard, who saw Bengaluru lose to Chennaiyin in the final last season as assistant manager, was quick to acknowledge the tricky nature of the knockout ties where no team can take anything for granted.
“In a two-legged knockout tie like the ISL semi-final, it’s important to understand the moment of the game. I cannot go in the game thinking I will try only to defend away from home, or will try to score an away goal at any cost. The key in these clashes is understanding the dynamics of the tie and play accordingly,” the 50-year-old explained.
Bengaluru came away with a 0-0 draw against FC Pune City in last season’s semi-final first leg. Despite no away goals to take back home, Albert Roca’s men closed a hard-fought 3-1 win in the second leg to qualify for the final. Cuadrat thus believes that it’s important to come up on top at key junctures of the tie, rather than focus on specific targets.
The Spaniard doesn’t buy much into the notion of that playing second leg at home is an advantage, throwing Ajax Amsterdam’s stunning victory over Real Madrid away from home in the Champions League knockout stages as an example. But in case of the tie against NorthEast United, Cuadrat welcomes the idea of Bengaluru playing at home in the decisive second leg.
“Usually I don’t think much about when we play at home, but in this case where both teams have vocal supporters, it’s better if we have the home crowd backing us in the final 15-20 minutes of the tie when everything is decided,” suggested the Bengaluru boss.
The Blues have plenty of experience of knockout ties having played in the AFC Cup in recent seasons, and that extra knowhow could come very handy against NorthEast United who are set to play their first ever semi-final in their history.
However, the lack of experience of the penultimate stage isn’t the most pressing worry for coach Eelco Schattorie, who faces a tough task in assembling a formidable eleven for the visit of the table toppers.
The Dutchman has just 16 players to choose from with injuries and suspensions making the task extremely hard for the former East Bengal boss.
The Highlanders, though, are expected to draw huge encouragement from their battling qualities that have seen them grab a spot in the semi-finals despite continued injury woes since mid-season.
On Thursday, NorthEast United will be without the suspended Gurwinder Singh, while goalkeeper TP Rehenesh, defenders Provat Lakhra, Robert Lalthlamuana and midfielder Rupert Nongrum are out with injuries. Schattorie refused the names of the other players missing, but suggested he has many problems with fitness of his players.
“In the last 10-12 games, I am solving puzzles every game. I am trying to change combinations every game depending on what we have available. It’s frustrating for me as a coach,” Schattorie said during the pre-match press conference.
“We played our best football at the start when according to me we had our best combination available. In the last part of the season we didn’t play at our highest level but got the results primarily because of two reasons — organisation and team spirit. At the start of the season, we decided to base our squad on these foundations as we knew we had limited resources compared to a few teams,” he added.
The Highlanders under their Dutch coach have been a tough nut to crack. They have lost just three games all season, and are the best defensive team in the league based on the goals conceded (18) and clean sheets recorded (eight). The Guwahati-based outfit is unbeaten since the turn of the year, but have drawn three games out of the four.
Schattorie will hope his side’s belligerence comes to the fore against Bengaluru who needed a stoppage time equaliser to earn a point on their last trip to Guwahati.
Goals have been hard to come by for NorthEast United who are the lowest scorers (22) among the semi-finalists. 12 of those goals have come from the shoes of Bartholomew Ogbeche. Federico Gallego and Rowling Borges have contributed four each, while Juan Mascia is the only other player to get on the scoresheet for the Highlanders.
Bengaluru have the worst defensive record among the last four, having conceded 22 goals so far this season. 15 of those 22 have come on the road making Bengaluru the worst defensive side on their travels in this season’s ISL.
NorthEast United will fancy their chances in the first leg at home if they manage to keep the Bengaluru attack at bay. However, it will be easier said than done for the Highlanders who have had issues to defend from crosses and set-pieces, having conceded 14 goals through those routes.
Cuadrat’s men have scored 17 of their 29 goals from crosses and set-pieces. With the Highlanders set to be without their first-choice centre-back pairing, Bengaluru could make significant damage from wide areas.
Cuadrat’s men are heavy favourites to overcome the Highlanders, but their tenacity combined with volatile nature of a two-legged knockout game will keep them on their toes.
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Updated Date: Mar 07, 2019 11:48:24 IST