After topping the league stage and winning the semifinals, Bengaluru FC will look to give a dream season a fairy-tale finish on home ground.

Bengaluru FC embraces date with destiny ahead of final at homePhotograph Courtesy: Bengaluru FC Facebook Page
news Sport Friday, March 16, 2018 - 16:24

At Bangalore Football Stadium on Magrath Road in Bengaluru, a warm autumn sun shines over a group of players huddled in the centre. Standing in the middle of the huddle, coach Albert Roca’s quiet and authoritative presence oversees a rigorous training session.

There is disquiet amongst the players as they are put through their paces. It was one of the first training sessions for the reshaped Bengaluru FC team ahead of its first-ever season in the Indian Super League (ISL) in October 2017.

The club was then recovering, after replacing notable players that had left with a clutch of new signings just before it made the switch to the franchise-based football league.

“It was hard. We were a close-knit bunch and we made memories together. We lived together, fought together and won trophies together and now, we have to do it all over again with a new-look team,” Udanta Singh, the team’s livewire winger, had said at the time.

Bengaluru FC, formed in 2013, entered the ISL in 2017 after a successful four-year spell playing in the I-League which included two I-League titles, two Federation Cups and a magical run to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup final. The club joined the league at a time the league was extended to its current five-month format and winners were rewarded with an entry into the AFC Cup.

In the first home game in the league, the club’s ardent supporters – the West Block Blues – named after its occupation of the West Block A stand of Kanteerava Stadium, unfurled a sprawling banner which read “Arrived”.

Bengaluru FC fans at the club's first game in the ISL || Photograph Courtesy: Bengaluru FC Facebook Page

The expectation within the club was already running high and five months on, it is safe to say that the team has surpassed those expectations on its way to topping the league stage and now stands on the verge of history once again ahead of the ISL final against Chennaiyin FC on Saturday.

‘New-look Bengaluru’

What has gone unnoticed, however, is that the Bengaluru team had to cope with the loss of influential players including Rino Anto, Eugenson Lyngdoh and CK Vineeth before the start of its maiden ISL campaign. All three players had been with the club since its inception when it was still a newly formed club eyeing an uncertain future, and grew to become part of the close-knit core of Indian players driving the club to new heights.

The player draft at the start of the season in July 2017 saw Kerala Blasters sign CK Vineeth and Rino Anto while Atletico de Kolkata picked up Eugenson Lyngdoh. There were other losses, like local boy Shankar Sampingiraj and left-back Lalchhuanmawia.

“It took a lot of time to get used to the new team. Our whole team was torn apart thanks to the ridiculous draft. We lost so many fan-favourites and that was extremely hard to digest,” said Vijay Bharadwaj, a keen follower of the club and part of the core group of fans who watch the games from the West Block.

The club moved quickly to fill the void by signing midfielders Dimas Delgado and Erik Paartalu. It also added Spanish striker Miku and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, considered a coup as he is the first ever Indian to play in the UEFA Europa League in Europe.

Erik Paartalu celebrates a goal against Delhi Dynamos on November 26 2017 || Photograph Courtesy: Bengaluru FC 

'I-League was harder'

The team enjoyed a sparkling start in the ISL as it set the pace in the league stage by winning four of the first five games, but a blip just before the halfway point of the season left the team reeling.

The slide was arrested with a 3-1 win against the Kerala Blasters on December 31 that was particularly enjoyable for the club’s supporters thanks to the banter between the West Block Blues and ‘Manjappada’, the supporters of the Kerala-based team. Since that win in Kochi, the team has not looked back, picking up 28 out of a possible 33 points and winning 8 of the next 10 games.

While captain Sunil Chhetri and Miku have earned plaudits for their goal-scoring exploits, Udanta Singh has continued his tremendous form, and Subhasish Bose and Rahul Bheke have come of age in defence.

“Through their performances and the overall results, they've filled a huge void that the fans felt,” added Vijay.

Miku celebrates with Dimas Delgado and Udanta Singh. Miku is Bengaluru FC's top scorer this season with 14 goals || Photograph Courtesy: Bengaluru FC 

The transition happened even as Roca instilled a possession-based footballing philosophy at the club, which was a significant shift from the pragmatic approach adopted by former manager Ashley Westwood. The team was now adept at controlling possession and equally comfortable in reverting to the occasional direct approach of launching counter-attacks.

Fans turn up in large numbers

The fans responded to the team’s success on the field by turning up in big numbers on match days. The final game of the league stage against Kerala Blasters was watched by a club record of 25,000 fans, who created a party atmosphere at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. They were helped generously by a large contingent of travelling away supporters who were promptly waved off after goals by Miku and Udanta in stoppage time, ensuring a Bengaluru win.

Attendance in Bengaluru FC games has increased since its switch to the ISL || Photograph Courtesy: Bengaluru FC 

A tense semifinal tie against Pune was then decided by a stunning hat-trick by Chhetri in the second leg at home. With the tie in the balance at 2-1 and with just a minute to go in the game, Chhetri ran clear of the trailing Pune City defenders, finished authoritatively and then jumped the barricades to celebrate in front of the West Block.

The team and its supporters are looking ahead to the final, buoyed by a stellar campaign so far, but they would do well to remember that their opponents in the final - Chennaiyin FC – won 2-1 in the meeting between the two sides in Bengaluru earlier in the season.

Chennai looks to complete redemption story

Chennaiyin FC has also quietly put together a good season of their own and has its own redemption story to fulfil. A harrowing first 45 minutes at home to Goa in the first game of the season saw the team outplayed and trailing 3-0.

“At a quarter past six, I sat in the dressing room thinking ‘God! What the hell have I done?’ I think there was an airline ticket booked for me to go back to London,” coach John Gregory said in a recent interview with The New Indian Express.

Gregory, roped in for this season, recovered from the jolt and oversaw a steady climb up the table that culminated in a 1-0 win over Mumbai City in the final game of the league stage.

Chennaiyin FC players celebrate after beating FC Goa in the semifinal of the ISL || Photograph Courtesy: Chennaiyin FC 

In the semi-finals, Chennaiyin FC banished the ghosts of the opening game to defeat FC Goa 3-0 at home and set up a southern Indian contest for the final. The team has had eleven different goal scorers and has been termed one of the fittest in the league.

It has also won the ISL in the past, in 2015 under Italian Marco Materazzi, but in Bengaluru, it faces a side that has made winning trophies an annoyingly frequent habit over the years.

Bengaluru count on big match experience

With veterans like Chhetri and John Johnson, who have been with the Bengaluru club since its inception, the Blues will look to draw on their experience of high-pressure knockout matches.

The club will also look to the fabled atmosphere of the Kanteerava, backed by its vociferous supporters with their dazzling banners and quirky chants, for inspiration as it looks to give a dream season a fairy-tale finish. It has ensured a league victory on its home ground before but a win on Saturday will see the club lift a trophy in front of its home fans for the first time.

And yet it can ill afford to let its date with destiny overwhelm them. Chennaiyin FC proved in the semi-finals that they can be disciplined and take their chances on the counter attack.

In spite of how well Bengaluru FC has done so far, the final is far from a foregone conclusion.