It's been a while since Bengaluru FC (BFC) were made to sweat during the league stage of an Indian football season — but it is a welcome sight for the Indian Super League (ISL). On Friday, BFC had to dig really deep to conjure up a significant 2-1 win over league leaders FC Goa, who were the better side on the night but failed to convert the superiority into goals.
What could have been the day BFC were put out of the running for top spot (a loss would have put the club eight points behind Goa) turned out to be the day the club were truly back in the race for first position — now only two points behind the leaders with seven games still to go.
There is no surprise that Sunil Chhetri, the club's talismanic captain and the only Indian outfield player who can claim to be as good as a foreign signing, was at the forefront of this victory with two decisive goals.
It has not been a productive season for BFC so far. The team has struggled for fluency and a cutting edge — which is often matched and bettered by opponents. The style of play has not been pleasing to watch — far from the standards set by the club.
The team has also been worked harder by stronger opponents — five wins in 11 games; only one of those convincing. A typical air of superiority and intimidation associated with BFC is missing, a lot of which is down to not replacing Venezuelan striker Miku adequately — the new Spanish striker Manuel Onwu has not produced the goods and has also been injured in half of the games.
Not since the 2016/17 season of I-League has BFC been stretched to this extent. It was the club's last season in that competition, before it decided to join the ISL. In BFC's first two ISL seasons, the club had strolled to first position. It finished top by eight points in the 2017/18 season — the second-most dominant display by any team since league football was introduced in India in 1996 — and also finished top in the 2018/19 season — on the same number of points as Goa largely because the head coach rested key players in the second half of the season.
This wasn't unexpected either. Although the I-League is berated for being poorer, the competition's varied offering and tough away trips posed a major challenge to BFC's 'tiki-taka' style under its then-manager Albert Roca. It is a style and philosophy carried forward by Roca's assistant Carles Cuadrat, who is now the head coach.
BFC picked up only two wins from nine away trips in the 2016/17 I-League. East Bengal's rough tactics and insistence on playing two strikers on the counter-attack had unsettled Roca's team. Churchill Brothers and DSK Shivajians were fast and ruthless on the counter too. Mumbai FC's physicality and directness on a smaller pitch was found hard to cope with. Aizawl FC — playing at a venue which is the hardest to reach among all the away trips — also went toe-to-toe with BFC on their own patch, while Mohun Bagan dismantled a youngish BFC team.
I-League teams aren't usually setup to play nice and gentle football. They are setup to survive by all means possible. In India, I-League asked BFC the equivalent of 'but can they do it on a windy Tuesday night in Stoke?' — a popular phrase in England that questions whether great teams or players have the stomach to grind out wins in the toughest of places. It asked BFC whether it had a feasible 'Plan B' away from its usual tippy-tappy football and the team did not.
In comparison, ISL is far more sanitised and uniform. With more accomplished coaches and players who are technically better, clubs aspire to play a brand of football considered more progressive and a brand that their fans can be proud of. Over the last two seasons, loosely speaking, the entire division had a uniform approach to playing. Which was a sweet spot for BFC.
This season, however, coupled with Miku's absence, teams have posed a different and stronger challenge. Mumbai City FC's 3-2 win in Bengaluru, for instance, was similar to how East Bengal dismantled BFC three years ago: two-striker counter-attacks and a lot of physicality on offer.
Both Kerala Blasters and NorthEast United FC deployed a high-pressing game that troubled Cuadrat's team. Odisha FC and Jamshedpur FC, teams with a foreign striker that BFC sorely misses, took Cuadrat's men head on at their game and nearly succeeded.
The match against Kolkata club ATK perhaps represents the most marquee change. ATK is a strong unit set up to play dangerously on the counter-attack — it has conceded more possession to its opponents in all the games. To deal with ATK, also a rival for top spot, Cuadrat changed his system entirely and played with three central defenders at the back and far more caution than usual.
Both teams were up for a fight — and a fight alone, it seemed. There were only three shots in the first half, and zero on target for BFC in the entire game. It was destined to be a 0-0 but for one mistake in the second half that was capitalised by ATK striker David Williams.
It was a game that made Cuadrat think, and that’s been symbolic of this season. Without a firing foreign striker and with teams posing tougher questions, the head coach has been trying to find the right answers. Maybe all of that will change with the entry of Jamaican forward Deshorn Brown this month.
Unlike the last two seasons, the stakes for finishing first are higher than ever: a direct entry to the AFC Champions League group stage, the first for any Indian club. The ISL trophy itself means lesser for BFC and it’s fans than finishing in first spot.
At the moment, BFC have somehow clung on in the race for top spot. But they are no longer the favourites for it.
Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.
Updated Date: Jan 04, 2020 18:40:54 IST