Unlike in previous seasons in Indian football, you don’t really know what to expect from Bengaluru FC (BFC) at the start of the Indian Super League (ISL) this time around.
Since they were founded in 2013, BFC have shown enough adaptability under different coaches to make themselves contenders in every competition they play. From Ashley Westwood’s fit, super-professional mix of youth and experience, which Albert Roca inherited and fine-tuned into one of the best models of clinical, possession-based attack, to Carles Cuadrat’s side, which married defensive grit with set-piece excellence — they all knew how to win the games that mattered.
Except in 2019-20. When Ashique Kuruniyan pounced on a rare ATK defensive blunder at Salt Lake Stadium, putting BFC 2-0 to the good with an away goal in the semis, the prospect of a Fatorda final looked good. It required ATK to score three times to progress… exactly what the champions ended up doing.
So why have BFC seemingly regressed?
If you could pick one word for why the BFC of last season looked a little different from the two before, it would be Miku. The Venezuelan’s chemistry with captain Sunil Chhetri had worked so well during his two years at BFC that they were regularly pinching matches, even ones where they weren’t the dominant team.
Last year, just two out of the other nine sides scored fewer goals in the regular league phase than BFC’s 22. In their first two ISLs, they were only ever outscored by Sergio Lobera’s FC Goa. These low returns meant that even though their defence stood tall they played out a third of their matches as draws.
Cuadrat continues as coach, and with established teams like ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC having traded smartly, and a relative unknown in SC East Bengal in the field, the fact that BFC have stuck to more or less the same group would suggest this season will also need them to find that extra gear to compete for top places.
Who are the players they have invested in?
Unsurprisingly, Cuadrat’s signings have been centred around finding solutions for goals. Striker Kristian Opseth from Norway joins the retained Jamaican Deshorn Brown in attack, and comes with the experience of playing in leagues in Norway, Turkey and Australia. Fran Gonzalez will be familiar to Indian viewers — the Spaniard plays more of a defensive midfield role, but still exerted influence in Mohun Bagan’s I-League win to score 10 goals, many of them from dead balls.
Winger Cleiton Silva from Brazil has played in Mexico and China, but comes with the distinction of being the first foreign player to score 100 league goals in Thailand, where he had successful stints at BEC Tero Sasana, Muangthong United, Chiangrai United and Suphanburi. Silva’s inclusion is also a not-so-subtle hint to both Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan that they can no longer take their names on the team sheet for granted, after both had a disappointing 2019-20 campaign.
But they’ve got Sunil Chhetri. ‘I just don’t think you understand’?
Actually, we do. He’s one player who could hold the key to how their season pans out. He’s had an interesting off-season thanks to the pandemic, from conducting interviews such as one with IM Vijayan that trended among Indian football buffs, to working out religiously during the lockdown and ensuring his team keeps up to his standards.
Other familiar faces like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in goal, Juanan, Dimas Delgao and Erik Paartalu in front of him will make BFC a difficult team to break down, as has been the norm. If Cuadrat can get his starting XIs right — here the five substitutions rule could also help — BFC should have more of a goal threat coming on a regular basis. Chhetri still has the ability to conjure goals from the smallest of openings — his team will have to create those openings for him and his chosen strike partners to feed off.
What do they have going for them
Even though there can’t really be any easy games in a league as compact as the ISL, the draw has been somewhat kind to BFC. They start with the reigning league-stage winners FC Goa, a rebuilding work under progress since Sergio Lobera left for Mumbai City alongwith some key players, and then play five more matches against teams that have a new coach at the helm. Of Hyderabad, Chennaiyin, NorthEast United, Kerala Blasters and Odisha, only Kibu Vicuna of Kerala has any previous experience of having coached in India.
Cuadrat’s first stern test might come four days from Christmas, when Antonio Habas’ ATK Mohun Bagan play the rematch of the dramatic semi-finals, where BFC wilted just enough to give away their title hopes. This time, Cuadrat will hope they go into that game riding the crest of an inexorable wave.