Hunt for the #NewChampion: Can Bengaluru exorcise their final blues?

The Blues are at it again. After their heartbreaking loss against Chennaiyin FC in the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2017-18 final, Bengaluru FC are all set for their first shot at redemption and a second shot at the title on March 17. Dispatching a strong FC Goa in the grand finale will be no walk in the park, but having been the more consistent side in the tournament over the last two seasons, the popular perception is that Bengaluru definitely deserve the trophy this time around.

Perceptions, however, have never been a pre-requisite for champions. In football, especially in finals, it always comes down to the coach, the team and the hunger to succeed on the night. While speculations about the last pointer is a fool's errand at best, the former two are discuss-worthy, especially at this stage of the tournament.

The coach

Carles Cuadrat took over the reins from Albert Roca before the start of the campaign and now, has the opportunity to outdo his predecessor come Sunday. Having been the team's assistant coach last season, Cuadrat witnessed their season-long hard work unravel on the final day of the season in heart-wrenching fashion. While only time will tell whether the Spaniard knows what to do to drive his team past the finish line, he will certainly know what not to do. His experience of being a part of a Hero ISL final will be a significant advantage over his counterpart Sergio Lobera.

Primarily pragmatic in nature, Cuadrat's philosophy is keeping it simple on the pitch. Like most Spanish coaches, Cuadrat prefers the 4-2-3-1 formation, but the personnel in the squad allows the shape to constantly evolve to a 4-3-3 while the team is on the front foot. Recently, Cuadrat has also shown his ability to switch things around and take the odd gambit when the need arises. The biggest example of this was perhaps the semi-final second leg against NorthEast United FC at the Sree Kanteerave Stadium. Chasing a goal in the final 20 minutes of the match, Cuadrat took his most experienced defender - Juanan - off and switched to a back three of Rahul Bheke, Harmanjot Singh Khabra and Nishu Kumar. The gamble was a huge risk to take, but the situation demanded it. The change paid off as Bengaluru found the much-anticipated goal minutes later. There are no guarantees if the risks will pay off every time, but the courage to take them is definitely a great tool to have in the locker. In Cuadrat's own words, "You'll never know if you're not brave enough to make the changes."

Bengaluru finished the 2018-19 league campaign with 34 points – on par with FC Goa, but topped the table due to their superior head to head record against the Gaurs. Last season, too, the Blues finished at the summit of the league table with 40 points, eight clear of second-placed Chennaiyin FC. However, the numbers don't really portray the entire story. Cuadrat did put his foot off the pedal a bit after securing their top four spot and rested several first-team players towards the end of the league campaign, which did adversely affect their points tally.

The team

There are no questions that Bengaluru possess one of the most balanced squads in the tournament. Barring any injuries, nine out of Cuadrat's starting XI seem to be set on stone. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (GK), Rahul Bheke, Juanan, Nishu Kumar, Harmanjot Singh Khabra, Dimas Delgado, Udanta Singh, Sunil Chhetri and Miku. The only contention being the spots for the remaining two foreigners. Cuadrat will be starting with two of Alejandro Barrera, Albert Serran and Xisco Hernandez. If the semi-finals were anything to go by, Barrera might be the first one in the squad list among these three. Despite still finding his feet in the squad after coming in for an injured Erik Paartalu a couple of weeks back, Barrera seems like an important piece of the puzzle for Cuadrat - a point he reaffirmed during the pre-match press conference before the semi-final second leg. With offence being the need of the hour at the Sree Kanteerava against NorthEast, Xisco started the match as Serran dropped down to the bench. However, against a very attacking Goa team, the temptation to start Serran – one of the most consistent defenders during the league phase - will be hard to ignore.

Up front, Miku will be the focal point of Bengaluru's attack, flanked by Udanta and Chhetri. Expect Delgado to venture forward every chance he gets to create an overload in the opposition third. Barrera's all-round abilities will see him act as the box-to-box option, patrolling up and down the pitch as the situation demands.

It has to be noted that Cuadrat’s decision to rest key players in the final few matches of the league stage might also play out in their favour. With the squad fresh and almost all of their key players fully fit and firing, the move might just turn out to be a masterstroke in the larger scheme of things.

A small downside for Bengaluru might be the bench strength. Compared to Goa, Bengaluru’s bench lacks the firepower to make a difference if the first XI fails to produce the goods – a factor which may have a telling impact if the match extends to extra time.

Key stats from Bengaluru's season

  • Bengaluru finished as the joint second-highest scorers (alongside Jamshedpur FC) in the league stage with 29. Only Goa (36) scored more.
  • Sunil Chhetri currently stands as Bengaluru’s top scorer with 9 goals.
  • Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu boasts the joint-highest number of clean sheets throughout the campaign with 6.
  • Dimas Delgado has been the chief orchestrator in midfield, playing a total of 1025 passes.
  • Barring their 5-1 defeat against Jamshedpur FC in their final league match, in which Cuadrat rested eight first team players, Bengaluru conceded just 17 goals in 17 matches during the league phase.
  • Bengaluru’s first defeat of the season came at the Mumbai Football Arena – the venue for the final – when Mumbai City FC bested them 1-0 to end their record 11-match unbeaten streak.
  • Bengaluru won both their league fixtures against Goa this season, beating them 2-1 away and 3-0 at home. In the home fixture in Bengaluru, the Blues were reduced to 10 men in the first half but put in a brilliant display in the second 45 minutes and scored three goals.

Players to watch out for

Miku

While the Venezuelan forward has not been at his prolific best this season, Miku still had a big role to play for the Blues. After starting the season on a bright note with three goals in five matches, the 33-year-old sustained a serious injury which ruled him out for a lengthy time. The forward made a comeback to the squad in their final four matches in the league stage, but seemed to be struggling for form and could only hit the back of the net once (which incidentally was against Goa). However, in the second leg of Bengaluru’s semi-final tie against NorthEast, the ace striker stepped up when his team needed him the most. Miku did miss three big opportunities to score in the first half but didn’t let his head drop. With time running out, the Venezuelan found the first goal of the match on the 72nd minute and eventually paved the way for Bengaluru’s passage into the Hero ISL 2018-19 final. Miku is known to be a big match player and with the confidence of the all-important goal and a terrific Hero of the Match performance against NorthEast behind him, expect the Venezuelan to play a crucial part in Sunday’s proceedings.

Udanta Singh

Despite starting the season on a slow note, Udanta Singh has really shown his worth over the course of the campaign. The 22-year-old has enjoyed his most productive spell with five goals and three assists to his name. The ‘Flash’, as he is fondly called by fans, has been a nightmare for opposition defences with his pace down the right flank. The Goa defence will have their hands full keeping the fleet-footed winger in check on Sunday.

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