Bengaluru FC’s 1-0 win over ATK in the first leg of the Indian Super League semi-final was neither about the result, nor their football. The Sree Kanteerava stadium has seen the team achieve much bigger wins in the past and play a lot better than what they did against ATK. Yet this game may rank among the most special ones in the club’s history for the sheer grit, effort and mentality on display from the home team and the circumstances in which they managed to put together such a performance.
The team entered the game on the back of a physically and emotionally draining AFC Cup qualifier against Maziya that they lost on penalties just three days ago.
Moreover, the season has been far from smooth sailing for Bengaluru FC who have failed to secure top spot in the league and thus missed out on the AFC Champions League berth. They had four fewer wins this season than FC Goa who finished the league stage on top.
They’ve found goals hard to come by and only NorthEast United and Hyderabad have scored lesser goals than the defending champions. By Bengaluru’s lofty standards, this translates to disappointment.
Thus, the performance to get the win that puts them in the driver’s seat to reach a third straight final and get a shot at defending their crown, stands out despite their play lacking the quality of yesteryears.
“I think the guys showed big heart,” Bengaluru manager Carles Cuadrat said after the match.
“It is one of those seasons where a lot of things are not happening for us. But against a top team, the guys got a result which is difficult to get. ATK were fresh. We have played double the number of games they had played in February,” he added, perfectly summing up the context in which Bengaluru FC entered this game.
Chhetri too played through the pain, having just about recovered from a hamstring injury. He may not have contributed in terms of goals but his presence on the pitch makes a big difference for the team, and also perhaps for the way opponent approach the game.
As expected, Cuadrat played a back three to match ATK’s formation and nullify the threat of their two forwards and wing-backs. Rahul Bheke, Albert Serran and Juanan formed the back three with Harmanjot Khabra and Nishu Kumar playing as wing-backs.
ATK went with an attacking line-up playing all of their foreign attacking players in Roy Krishna, David Williams and Edu Garcia. In the wing-back positions, Antonio Habas went for the more attack-minded Michael Soosairaj.
However, it didn’t reflect on the pitch in terms of chances created. Although ATK had 59% of possession, they managed just one shot on target in the entire game and that came from outside the penalty area.
Barring one counter-attack that led to Nishu Kumar fouling Roy Krishna and seeing red, ATK barely managed to open up the Bengaluru defence that was well supported by the midfield.
Dimas Delgado, Erik Paartalu and Suresh Wangjam put a shift in to close all the gaps for ATK to penetrate the defence and were extremely disciplined in the way they shielded the backline.
The trio made 11 clearances, as many interceptions and ten blocks among them. In comparison the ATK midfield only completed two clearances, made five interceptions and just one block. Although Edu Garcia, Javier Hernandez and Regin Michael were involved in more attacking play than defensive work compared to the Bengaluru midfield, they only managed to create one chance among them in the ninety minutes.
The Bengaluru midfield trio on the other hand created five chances for the team, although a few of them were from set-pieces.
Habas stated after the game that ATK were the better team on the night and were unfortunate to lose but it’s hard to make a case for him. Bengaluru executed their tactics much better on the night and despite surrendering possession to ATK, managed to create much more chances than the Kolkatans.
On another day, a fitter Chhetri would have added to Bengaluru’s lead late on in the game when he failed to keep his effort on target after he was fed by substitute Kevaughn Frater with a low, drilled cross around the six-year area.
There were glimpses of quality from ATK in the way they moved the ball at times, but they were too passive for a Bengaluru FC side that simply seemed to want it more despite having lesser fuel in the tank than their opponents.
“My players are giving everything for the club and the team. They are doing whatever I am asking them to do on the pitch. It was very nice that Sunil (Chhetri) came to celebrate the goal with me because it shows that he is really happy with how we are doing things,” Cuadrat said.
The coach also reserved special praise for 19-year-old midfielder Wangjam.
“He is giving us a lot. I asked him yesterday if he feels ready to start the game because he was playing 120 minutes in the AFC Cup game. But he told me that he was ready to help us. And he did a wonderful job. He was creating chances in attack and helping in defence. He is having an impressive season. I am sure that he will soon have an opportunity in the national team as well,” he added.
There is still work to do for Bengaluru FC to make it to the final and the way this season has gone for them, they may come unstuck in Kolkata in the second leg and fail to reach the final for the first time. But nothing can take away the performance they put in in the first leg. It is much more representative of their brief yet glorious history than the rest of their season.
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