So much has changed at Bengaluru FC. Yet, so little has.
The summer looked ominous for them. Their manager Ashley Westwood, who’d guided them to two I-League titles, a Federation Cup win and overseen a remarkable run in the continental championship, had decided to end his three-year association with the club. All but one of their foreign players, too, were let go. For the first time since their inception, Bengaluru looked vulnerable. And their rivals hoped this is where they would stumble, finally.
After a careful scrutiny, they managed to sign highly-respected Albert Roca as Westwood’s replacement. With him came new support staff and a fresh set of international players. Unlike most other Indian clubs (both I-League and ISL), Bengaluru gave their manager a freehand to sign players rather than thrusting them on him. With the new coach came a new playing style.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the club’s ability to set new benchmarks. On Wednesday, Bengaluru will get an opportunity to become the first Indian club to reach the final of the AFC Cup, Asia’s second-biggest club football competition after the AFC Champions League.
The Indian champions will take on defending AFC Cup champions and Malaysian league winners Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) at the Sree Kanteerva Stadium in the second leg of their semifinal in Bangalore on Wednesday. Eugeneson Lyngdoh’s wonderous goal has given Bengaluru a slight advantage going into the return fixture, with the hosts enjoying the away-goal cushion following a 1-1 draw.
JDT will be without their three key players Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Martin Lucero and Amri Yahyah. The absence of Argentine duo of Diaz and Lucero, in particular, is likely to hurt JDT. Diaz has had a 30-goal season, including five in the AFC Cup.
But Roca isn’t counting on his opponent’s misfortune. He is believed to have told his team that it would be an insult to their potential if they start depending on, and be happy over, the absence of their rivals’ key players. On the match eve, he tried to shrug off complacency, if any, again. “This team is still champion of the competition. They are still the favorites. It would be a fiercest mistake to consider tomorrow’s match easy,” Roca said.
Roca might be just a couple of months into his new job but he would’ve seen the recording of the AFC Champions League qualifier last year, when a JDT side comprising largely of local Malaysian players defeated the Westwood-coached Bengaluru 2-1. In their two meetings in the group stage of the AFC Cup this year, Bengaluru have lost 1-0 and 3-0.
But in a short time, Roca has made Bengaluru FC defensively-solid, which was one of the key factors in their 1-1 draw a fortnight ago – the first time the club went undefeated against JDT.
But that doesn’t undermine the enormity of the challenge that Bengaluru face on Wednesday. Their biggest drawback, in comparison to JDT, is the lack of match practice. Roca, best known as Dutchman Frank Rijkaard’s long-time assistant at Barcelona and Saudi Arabia, took charge at Bengaluru during the off season, after the I-League was over.
His first assignment was the AFC Cup quarterfinals against Singapore’s Tampine Rovers but apart from the continental matches, he has had to make do with prolonged training sessions to work out combinations. Not just Roca, even their new foreign recruits – Alvaro Rubio, Juan Gonzalez and Cameron Watson – have had just a fortnight to get used to the new surroundings.
While Watson, 29, is an Australian league veteran, 37-year-old Rubio has spent 10 seasons with Spanish league club Real Valladolid and Gonzalez, 29, is a defender who has played for the B-Teams of Deportivo La Coruna and Real Madrid, before moving to German club Fortuna Dusseldorf.
How well these three combine with their Indian teammates will be crucial for Bengaluru. There’s a sense of novelty even for India captain Sunil Chhetri, who is back playing as a striker as against on the flanks, which Westwood preferred during his three-year stint.
Bengaluru, in that sense, may look slightly unsettled as compared to JDT, who have come fresh off a commanding league win and with plenty of matches under their belt.
A lot has changed at Bengaluru FC in the last two months. But they’ll be keen to prove that when it comes to defying odds, they are still capable.