How Bengaluru’s Indian contingent gave them the edge
March 17, 2019, will go down as a red-letter day for Bengaluru FC. After narrowly missing out last season, the club landed the much-coveted Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) title after getting the better of FC Goa 1-0 in a dramatic grand finale at the Mumbai Football Arena on Sunday.
Bengaluru often had to tide over the challenges thrown by Sergio Lobera's side, especially in the second half where the Gaurs enjoyed most of the possession. But the Blues delivered the killer blow when it mattered the most and emerged as the new champion. The Hero Super Cup 2018 champions have been consistent throughout the season and upped their game at the best possible time.
The most intriguing part about the Blues' campaign is that they found different ways to win matches, be it dominating the opponents, soaking in the pressure and counter-attacking. Bengaluru have had an answer to every question thrown at them this season.
Incidentally one of their best performances this season came sans key players like Sunil Chhetri and Erik Paartalu. In their penultimate league match of the season against eventual fellow finalists Goa, Bengaluru were reduced to 10-men before half time but rallied in the second period to secure a memorable 3-0 win over their formidable opponents.
They have produced some emphatic comebacks, most notably in the second leg of the semi-finals against NorthEast United FC where they were trailing 2-1 from the first leg. After being blunted for 70-odd minutes, the team would score three goals to book their spot in the final.
Head coach Carles Cuadrat has helped the team evolve from the possession-based system as his pragmatic tactics also aided in their progress.
The 50-year-old has done well with a squad which didn’t have as much depth as last season. Their season was hampered with injuries to key players such Miku and Paartalu, but still, Bengaluru managed to finish at the top the league table for a second season running and eventually won the crown.
Special credit must be given to Bengaluru's Indian contingent. The Blues' Indian brigade has been in superb form this campaign, something that set the side a cut above the competition. The likes of Udanta Singh, Sunil Chhetri, Rahul Bheke, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Nishu Kumar, Harmanjot Singh Khabra have all stood up to be counted when it mattered.
Udanta, known for his blistering pace, stepped up this season as he scored five goals and shared the load up front. Chhetri, as usual, was sharp up front and emerged as the team's highest scorer with nine goals. Gurpreet's Golden Glove Award testifies to the impact he have had this season.
Significantly, Bheke produced a magical header in the end at a time when many were thinking that the finalists would be decided on penalties. The right-back has been in phenomenal form throughout the season, establishing himself as a mainstay in Bengaluru's backline and contributed with some crucial goals throughout the season, most notably the championship-winning header on Sunday.
In the final, Bengaluru went in with three Indian defenders - Nishu, Bheke and Khabra - at the back alongside Spanish centre back Juanan. Faced with Goa's attacking arsenal, considered as the most lethal in the league, many coaches would have been tempted to start with an extra foreigner to bolster the backline. With the likes of Albert Serran, who has been phenomenal throughout the season, in the squad, the prospect does look even more tempting. But Cuadrat decided to put his faith on his Indian players, who, yet again, showed their worth and came out with flying colours. The move enabled Cuadrat to play both Xisco Hernandez and Alejandro Barrera in midfield, which helped the Blues ensure that Goa couldn't control the match from the middle of the park.
"I am very happy with how the Indian defenders – Rahul Bheke, Nishu Kumar and Harmanjot Singh Khabra – performed. We decided to go for an offensive game and I’m happy that it worked out. Goa were not getting a lot of chance and (Ferran) Corominas was not involved as much in the three games that we have played this season. We have to be happy with our defensive work," said Cuadrat after winning the title.
Bengaluru are, without doubt, deserving champions and their Indian contingent played a pivotal role to get them there.