Road to semi-finals: Bengaluru on a quest for redemption

For a second consecutive season, Bengaluru FC finished the league stage at the top of the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) table. Since their introduction to the league in Hero ISL 2017-18, the Blues have been the most consistent side and deservedly find themselves in the semi-finals. But after the heartbreaking defeat to Chennaiyin FC in last season's final, can Bengaluru go all the way this time around? Here's a look back at the Blues' season so far.

Form over the season:

Having taken over the reins of the team from former head coach Albert Roca, Carles Cuadrat's credentials to lead Bengaluru into a new era was under scrutiny from the day of his appointment. After all, it was the Spaniard's first appointment as the head coach of a team. Poor showings in the AFC Cup 2018 quarter-finals and a not-so-great pre-season did little to instill any confidence in the former Bengaluru assistant coach's tenure as the man in charge.

However, critics were silenced when the Blues registered a 1-0 victory against rivals Chennaiyin to kick-start their Hero ISL 2018-19 campaign. After a 2-2 draw against Jamshedpur on October 7, the Blues would go on a six-match winning run with some crucial victories against the likes of FC Goa, ATK and Kerala Blasters FC. One of the highlights of Bengaluru’s campaign has been their never-say-die attitude. While Cuadrat might not have employed the easy-on-the-eye possession-based approach his predecessor did, the 50-year-old managed to inculcate a sense of grittiness and an ability to grind out results that weren't associated with the team before. Especially with star striker Miku missing the majority of the league phase due to an injury, Bengaluru did well to get the results in their favour, which bears testimony to the new-found attribute.

This feature of Cuadrat's Blue brigade has been displayed a number of times over the course of the campaign, most notably during December’s clash against NorthEast United FC. An uncharacteristically muted performance from the Blues almost resulted in the Highlanders bagging all three points. However, a stunning overhead kick from Chencho Gyeltshen in the dying minutes ensured that they came away with a point.

At the end of the first half of the campaign, the Blues remained unbeaten for a total of 11 matches, which proved to be the longest unbeaten streak in the league’s history.

The second half of the campaign would, however, prove to be a mixed journey for Cuadrat and Co. as their unbeaten streak was finally broken by an inspired Mumbai City FC outfit. Further losses to Chennaiyin FC and Delhi Dynamos FC would see them lose their coveted first position to FC Goa, albeit temporarily. However, the Blues would once again showcase their prowess when they faced off against the Gaurs in February. Despite going a man down, the Blues put in a masterclass, eventually winning the match by three goals and confirming their status as the league leaders. Bengalury were humbled 5-1 by Jamshedpur in their final league match at the Furnace, but in all fairness, Cuadrat did field a second-string team without eight of his regular starters.

Heading into the semis, Cuadrat and Co. will definitely back themselves to make it all the way to the final in Mumbai on March 17 and make their second bite of the cherry count.

Key Players

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu

For a second season running, Gurpreet Singh has established himself as one of the league’s top shot-stoppers. In the 17 matches he has featured in, Gurpreet has registered five clean sheets and has conceded only once in every 90 minutes. His leadership and match-winning abilities will definitely come in handy for Bengaluru during the semi-finals.

Rahul Bheke

One player who has caught the attention of the Bengaluru faithful this season has undoubtedly been Rahul Bheke. ‘Bhekenbauer’, as he is fondly called, has put in a string of fine performances at the back. Up front, Bheke has also contributed with a couple of match-winning goals with his displays earning him the Fans’ Player of the Month award for November.

Sunil Chhetri

Last season’s Hero of the League, Sunil Chhetri has continued to perform at the top of his game for the ongoing campaign. The Bengaluru captain currently leads the goal scoring charts among the Indian contingent with eight goals to his name. More impressive is the fact that Chhetri had to do it partly without his influential strike-partner Miku, who was sidelined for the majority of the campaign with injury. A full-strength Bengaluru with Chhetri and Miku leading the line will be a potent threat during the semi-finals.

Semi-finals fixtures:

NorthEast United FC vs Bengaluru FC

Date: March 7, 2019

Venue: Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, Guwahati

Bengaluru FC vs NorthEast United FC

Date: March 11, 2019

Venue: Sree Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru

Check the full fixtures list here.

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