A trip down memory lane to the 2016-’17 season of Indian football reveals a few bright spots for the game in the country.
While Aizawl FC’s shock I-League triumph will remain rooted in public consciousness (fingers crossed), the team that finished fourth in the league scripted a remarkable tale of their own, falling just short in their quest to become the first Indian club to win an AFC Cup.
Yet, it was in the semi-finals that the Kanteerava came alive and with 21,000-plus on a weekday, the stadium roared as Bengaluru overcame defending champions Johor Baru 3-1. A day short of a year after Albert Roca’s fourth match in charge of the Blues saw the West Block Blues bellow “Chhetri, Chhetri” after the BFC skipper notched up two goals, including a magnificent second.
This time, things stand a little differently as Bengaluru trail 1-0 from their first leg in Dushanbe, as Istiklol, the Tajik champions, stopped them from scoring an all-important goal away from home.
While the 2015 runners-up managed to bag a goal through Dmitry Barkov, the five-time winners of the Tajik league will face a different proposition in Bengaluru come Wednesday evening. The first leg of the Inter-Zonal semi-final was the first knockout game BFC had lost since 2015 and they have not been defeated at home in Asia since the group stages of the 2016 edition. The Central Asians, though, are yet to lose a game in a year, both in domestic and continental competitions.
In the first leg, Gurpreet Singh conceded his first goal in Bengaluru colours, as Roca’s 5-4-1 formation meant that Istiklol peppered the away goal from range, having more than the thrice the shots (23 to 7) and shots on target (7 to 2).
Roca’s team, much more compact, enjoyed much more of the possession, 63.2%, and made 520 passes to Istiklol’s 289, but played more short passes as they looked to keep the ball and didn’t threaten the goal as much as they would have liked to.
With the tie currently in Istiklol’s favour, Roca will almost surely opt for a more expansive formation and style of play as they look to overturn a one-goal deficit. Bengaluru’s spine, apart from Gurpreet, has been its midfield as Erik Paartalu, Dimas Delgado and Lenny Rodrigues could well be the Blue template for the season.
A 1-0 reversal in the first match of a two-legged competition is one of the trickiest scorelines to negotiate. While a 1-0 win for BFC on Wednesday will mean that the tie is taken into extra time, a goal conceded at home will mean that Bengaluru will have to win by two clear goals to make it to the final.
Hence, it remains to be seen whether Roca opts to get the all-important tie equaliser first or keep the Tajik side at bay as their task will be compounded by any goals that they let in.
Bengaluru seem to have the edge on the flanks as Nishu Kumar and Collin Abranches had neutralised Istiklol’s wingers, who put in 29 crosses, with minimal success apart from the goal which came in from the right. Istiklol right-back Romish Dzalilov produced one successful cross all game while his opposite number on the left Akhtam Nazarov did not manage any.
Istiklol coach Mukhsin Mukhamadiev looked to get around Bengaluru’s backline by utilising Fathollo Fathuloev’s ability to deliver from set pieces and the captain came close on a couple of occasions, but Gurpreet stood between Fathuloev and his first goal of the competition as the Tajiks continued their poor record from dead ball scenarios. The Tajikistan champions are yet to score a single goal from set-pieces in the 2017 AFC Cup.
Abranches did well in his last game but Harmanjot Khabra may get the nod ahead of the 25-year-old at home as the former East Bengal man is more potent going forward. Juanan Gonzalez, scorer of a set-piece goal in last year’s semi and ‘Javelin arms’ Rahul Bheke are expected to form the centre-back pairing.
Building up to the game, the Blues utilised their three-week break between the ties training in the city before a short camp at the BFC Residential Academy in Bellary. With no suspensions or injuries to worry about, Roca will have a full-strength squad at his disposal.
Speaking on the eve of the game, the Spaniard said, “We all know the permutations and combinations now and it’s simple for us. We need to win by two goals, and so we need to get off to a good start. It won’t be easy against Istiklol who will be hard to break down, but there’s no turning back and we will go all out to get the result.”
Coming into the game, the visitors who arrived in the city on Monday, have been boosted by the return of Ghanaian midfielder David Mawutor and Tajik midfielder Juraboev Amirbek while Ukraine defender Artem Baranavskyi continues to serve a suspension.
Istiklol may try to go into the game with a 4-3-3 in order to try and counter Roca’s own formation which is expected to be a 4-3-3. Udanta Singh and Toni Dovale will look to flank Sunil Chhetri but the Spaniard must improve on his first leg showing as he failed to beat his marker in Tajikistan.
Daniel Lalhlimpuia and Alwyn George represent alternatives to Roca but he is expected to opt for the first two to be used as impact substitutes. This will also be a match-up between Chhetri and Manuchekhr Dzhalilov as the former was kept quiet in the first leg, forced often to drop deep to retrieve the ball. Dzhalilov, with seven goals and 27 in all competitions in 2017, will be the visitors’ biggest threat.
Bengaluru need no motivation, though, to recreate the heroics of last season as their conquerors of 2016, Air Force Club, are through to the final once again. And if that wasn’t enough: If Bengaluru win, they get to play the final at home, at the Kanteerava. We should be in for a cracker, a lip-smacker if you will.
(With inputs from JSW Media and the-afc.com)