Together and happy: Bengaluru FC are finally looking the part under Marco Pezzaiuoli

January 26, 2022, Athletic Stadium in Bambolim, Bengaluru FC hurtle onto the field, hoping to continue their Hero Indian Super League (ISL) resurgence against a stingy Chennaiyin FC outfit. Prior to the game, the Marina Machans had cast themselves into the top four, whereas the Blues were straining every muscle to propel themselves into the upper echelons.

The match begins with Bengaluru FC dominating the early exchanges. They press Chennaiyin FC high up the pitch and win the ball back a few times too. They are also looking very sharp offensively, meaning that the Marina Machans’ rearguard, which prizes itself on keeping things quiet, is put under plenty of pressure.

In the 11th minute, the Blues’ supremacy pays off. A corner from the right is hauled into the box. Debjit Majumder flaps at it a touch and parries the ball into the centre of the penalty area. Sunil Chhetri, as he has done countless times throughout his Hero ISL career, reacts quickest and draws a foul from Edwin Vanspaul.

The referee has no hesitation in pointing towards the spot, meaning that the Blues, who have had problems scoring goals, are now accorded an opportunity to surge ahead inside a quarter of an hour.

The cameras immediately pan towards Chhetri. Not because he won the penalty and has made a livelihood scoring goals, but also because he needs a solitary strike to nudge ahead of Ferran Corominas and become the highest goalscorer the Hero ISL has seen all these years.

The Indian national team skipper is seen engaged in a conversation with Prince Ibara, presumably to decide who should take the penalty. The discussion continues and ultimately, both opt to hand it over to Iman Basafa – a footballer who hasn’t been in the Blues’ scheme of things but an individual who was seemingly lined up as their designated spot-kick taker.

At first, every BFC fan is taken aback. This was, irrespective of the two missed penalties earlier in the season, the ideal opportunity for Chhetri to etch his name into Hero ISL folklore. But he didn’t go searching for that record. He rarely does, to be honest.

Basafa converted the penalty and the Blues’ faithful broke into rapturous applause (metaphorically, of course). The contribution of their captain, though, didn’t go unnoticed.

This, by the way, isn’t just about glorifying the selflessness Chhetri portrayed when on the brink of an unparalleled feat. Instead, it illustrated that Bengaluru FC, despite how their season has transpired, are probably as tightly-knit a footballing group as any in the country.

There was another moment involving Chhetri later in the game. Three minutes before half-time, the forward embarked on a mazy run in the inside right channel. He beat as many as four defenders and was bearing down on Majumder. Surely this would be the moment he would bag the record, right?

But he passed to Udanta Singh, who was accorded the freedom of the six-yard box and had the easiest of tap-ins. To an extent, that was the right decision too, considering the keeper had cut down Chhetri’s angle a tad and the latter would’ve had to shoot off his left foot. What was beyond argument, though, was how much clarity was running through the BFC veins in the attacking third.

Just before Chhetri set up his Indian teammate, Udanta had breezed through the midfield and had picked out the perfect through-ball to Chhetri. The former could’ve easily marveled at his pass and not continued his run. But he followed the ball, anticipated how he could receive it back and reaped the rewards.

Apart from the aforementioned, there were plenty of other occasions where it felt that BFC were actually willing to lay down their lives for each other. The high press Marco Pezzaiuoli has been preaching, requires an incredible amount of coordination. Not only does a player have to cover the zone that is demarcated to him, he also has to ensure that his timing is perfect and that his teammate doesn’t get exposed. And, if his teammate gets caught out, then he needs to help him out at the earliest.

There were many other instances where Bengaluru FC’s off-the-ball running was superb. Ibara made a nuisance of himself high on the right flank, with the likes of Chhetri and Udanta profiting.

Bruno Ramires also found himself in promising positions, whereas Suresh Singh Wangjam showed more adventure than usual. Basafa, meanwhile, seemed a man possessed, which considering his intermittent appearances this season, was a refreshing sight for the Blues.  

Defensively too, they seem to be making more recovery runs and seem to be providing their defensive line with as much cover as possible. While individual mistakes are still creeping into their game, the extra workrate has ensured that that risk has been mitigated a shade.

Thus, a sliver of optimism has started permeating the Bengaluru FC ranks. Not just because they have stitched together a couple of victories, but also because they seem to be playing for each other. That they have slowly but surely bought into their manager’s philosophy has only increased their effectiveness.

It would be very easy to say that Chhetri’s contribution vis-à-vis his decision to not go looking for the record, didn’t have as much of an impact. But when a captain sets that kind of example, it is hard to argue that it doesn’t positively affect those around him.

In isolation, those two decisions might not mean much. In fact, many other footballers might’ve chosen to pass to Udanta when placed in a similar situation. But the fact that it came at a time when Chhetri had just broken his Hero ISL duck for the season and Bengaluru FC were still rummaging for a consistent winning formula, only makes people believe that the Blues might just be onto something.  

Bengaluru FC still have a long way to go before making the semi-finals. Yet, as long as their players keep making the right decisions, keep putting the team ahead of themselves, keep playing for the name on the front of the shirt rather than the back of it and keep acting as guardian angels for their teammates, BFC will do just fine.   

That, considering their early-season woes, isn’t just an improvement. It is also a proclamation to the rest of the Hero ISL that they mean business, again.    

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