The 2016 AFC Cup finalists came away from Tajikistan with a 1-0 defeat, but the scoreline failed to represent the host’s domination.
Bengaluru FC have always been a club that the broke stereotypes that had plagued Indian football for a long time. Poor management, dour style of football and a lack of killer instinct. This was flipped right on its head once JSW Bengaluru FC came into existence in 2013. Fast forward to 2016 and you had, for the first ever time, an Indian club competing in an AFC Cup final.
What was more impressive is that they overcame the then reigning champions Johor Darul Ta’zim in the semi-finals to book their place in Doha. A 1-1 draw in the away leg was followed by a thrilling 3-1 win at home in Bengaluru.
A similar situation await the Steelmen when they play a high-flying Istiklol FC in Bengaluru on October 18th. The Tajik champions laid siege to the Bengaluru goal as they racked up 7 shots on goal as opposed to Bengaluru’s 2.
Albert Roca set up his team in a 3-5-2 with Colin Abranches and Nishu Kumar being tasked with keeping Istiklol wingers Fatkhulloev and Aliev under control. With Erik Paartalu playing the role of the third centre back with Lenny Rodrigues and Dimas Delgado ahead of him, Roca had outlined his intentions that he wanted to take a positive result back to the second leg.
For a side that had dismantled their previous opposition at home, Istiklol had no hesitation in putting the visitors under pressure. For a team that is used to build up play patiently and dominate their opponents, Bengaluru were harried off the ball consistently by the Istiklol players who hunted in groups of 3. Despite racking up the possession statistics, they never looked like they would be able to get out of their own half as seen by the fact that out of the top 5 passing combinations, 4 of them were between the 3 centre-halves.
The Istiklol midfield did a fine job of shutting down Dimas Delgado and Lenny Rodrigues from venturing forward during counter attacks and thereby cutting off the supply line to lone striker Udanta Singh. More often than not, the 21-year-old India winger was left with too much to do on his own as Sunil Chhetri was kept at bay by the Istiklol left wing.
Watch highlights as Bengaluru FC lose 1-0 in Tajikistan
Lenny, in particular, had a very poor game as he was overrun on most occasions and was very slow on recovering possession, attributable to the fact that he had only 2 successful recoveries as opposed to 8 and 6 by the Istiklol pivot of Nuriddin Davronov and Ehson Pahshanbe respectively. This left Dimas Delgado with the task of single-handedly taking on the Istiklol midfield press.
Dimitri Barkov’s bullet header in the first half was a case of the Bengaluru defence backing off too much to allow Fatkulloev time to deliver an inch-perfect cross for the Russian to score. The scoreline would have been much greater had it not been for Gurpreet Singh Sandhu‘s exceptional performance in goal. The India custodian needed to use every bit of his vast frame and experience to keep out certain goals and keep his team alive in the second leg.
Sunil Chhetri’s (L) and Udanta Singh’s (R) heat map during Bengaluru FC vs Istiklol FC: Clearly suggests that the captain should be playing more centrally (© the-afc.com)
Roca’s introduction of Harmanjot Khabra brought about a sense of purpose to each Bengaluru attack as his direct running finally posed a problem to the Istiklol backline. Daniel’s arrival meant that Udanta shifted to the wing and Chhetri moved to his preferred central position. This change saw the dynamic change as Bengaluru now had more teeth to their attack and this almost paid dividend when Udanta’s solo run nearly saw the visitors score a late away goal.
Bengaluru now have 2 weeks to devise an approach to win the second leg against a quality team. The odds were stacked against them in 2016 as well, but if there is one thing you would realise about this Bengaluru team is that you can never really write them off at any juncture. Albert Roca, though, needs to understand that winning with three foreigners in the backline is never going to be really too feasible. The score, though, can be said to be in the Steelmen’s favour as of now.