It’s proving to be an unusual season for India’s champions Bengaluru FC. Last week, they were eliminated in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup playoffs. And although they are a game away from reaching the Indian Super League (ISL) final, this will sting. To put this in perspective, the AFC Cup is a tournament for the continent’s second-tier nations. Champions League, meanwhile, is for top football nations in the region. Among the lower-ranked nations, the ones with fewest competition ranking points – calculated on the basis of results in continental club competitions – end up in the playoffs.
In that sense, Bengaluru’s premature exit – losing to Maldives’ Maziya Sport and Recreation Club – comes as an embarrassment. More so, since an Indian club will be making its AFC Champions League debut next year. It also raises a lot of questions about the preparedness of the Indian clubs to take on Asia’s elite.
Though shocking, their exit barely comes as a surprise. Bengaluru have been dull for most part of the season. They have lacked ideas, creativity and spark in the attacking third. It’s been a combination of both — summer signings not working out as desired plus a drastic loss of form for key players.
For instance, Udanta Singh, who runs down the wings created most scoring opportunities last season. What was expected to be a dream combination up front – Indian trio of Sunil Chhetri, Udanta and Ashique Kuruniyan – ended up being a dud with Udanta and Ashique never really got going.
The foreigners in the attacking line-up, too, did not fire. Manuel Onwu, the replacement for their firebrand Venezuelan forward Miku, did not score a single goal in three months. After he moved to Odisha on loan, he scored seven goals and managed four assists in just four matches. Bengaluru got Deshorn Brown in place of Onwu and then got rid off Raphael Augusto, signing Kevaughn Frater as his replacement. Both Brown and Frater have had little time to make a telling impact.
So the onus once again, as it always does, fell on Chhetri. He, once again, is among the few bright spots from an Indian perspective not just for Bengaluru but in the league once again. Chhetri has scored one-third of Bengaluru’s goals and has found support in the likes of Dimas Delgado and Erik Paartalu. Suresh Wangjam, the under-17 World Cup team midfielder, has done admirably when called upon.
But the worrying aspect would be, from the national team point of view, the form of Udanta and Ashique – the forward, in fact, was praised by coach Carles Cuadrat for his defensive work more than contributions in the attack.
Their over-reliance on Chhetri and genuine lack of options meant Bengaluru did not look as threatening as they have in the past. Yet, despite all their troubles, they are 90 minutes away from another shot at the title. That says a lot about the team and their ability to eke out wins in difficult scenarios.
A lot of credit for reaching so far goes to their defensive show. Bengaluru have managed clean sheets in more than half of their matches (11 out of 19) is a testimony to the class of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and the defence in front of him, led by a peerless Juanan.
Bengaluru, who finished third in the league phase of the ISL, defeated ATK 1-0 in another gritty home match. The second leg, to be played on Sunday, will decide whether Bengaluru’s season will eventually end up defining their season. And a win might perhaps numb the pain of an early AFC Cup exit too.
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