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After an incredibly long off-season, the I-League is finally here and the opening game promises to be a competitive affair. In a repeat of last week’s Federation Cup final, defending I-League champions Bengaluru FC take on Goan giants Dempo SC. With both sides touted to be potential title contenders, we can look forward to a tightly contested affair at the Kanteerva Stadium.
Having received media accreditation for the I-League this season, Outside of the Boot was on hand to pick the brains of Head Coach Ashley Westwood, Captain Sunil Chhetri from Bengaluru FC and Clifford Miranda who was accompanied by Team Manager Shailesh Karkera from Dempo SC.
Bengaluru FC have an impressive record against the Goan side in their admittedly short history beating the traditional giants of Indian football in all 3 of the prior meetings including the game on last Sunday. Ashley Westwood though was in no mood to take things for granted and was quick to point out that history wouldn’t count for much ahead of the season opener.
“We’ve just got to judge it as what it is really – it’s just another football match. Until we see the team sheets, we won’t be able to judge anything based on history or from what we’ve done before. You’re only as good as you are in your last football match, but this is a new one and hopefully we’ll put in a good performance.”
The defending Champions’ marquee player Joshua Walker was the only injury concern for the home side having limped off injured in last weekend’s final with a hamstring injury and his availability will be subject to a fitness test ahead of the game. Walker who grew into his role in the side in the Federation Cup could potentially be a big miss for the side but Westwood expressed confidence in his squad depth.
Having moved from the Bangalore Football Stadium to the Kanteerva stadium this time around, Bengaluru FC have been hard at work not only renovating the stadium but also relaying the turf. The 38 year old Englishman seemed to be content with the pitch especially considering the short amount of time the club had in terms of preparation.
“The turf is a massive improvement from where it was when I last saw it three weeks ago. It’s a work in progress as is the football club because we’ve only had a short amount of time to turn the turf around, but in the end it’s a football pitch, it’s the standard size and that’s all that matters.”
The Bangalore Football Stadium, the home side’s old stomping ground had an astro turf pitch as opposed to the Kanteerva’s natural turf. Although Westwood conceded that astro turf is perhaps more conducive to his possession style of football, he was confident that his side would face no problems with the change.
“No I don’t think so (on whether playing on natural turf affects the possession style of football). Artificial grass can sometimes make it a little bit quicker with the pass, you get a true pass. On grass, you’re not too sure all the time. But you look at our record, especially in Goa, we have a good record so don’t think it matters to us”
On being quizzed about title contenders this season, Westwood was quick to name drop the Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal going as far as saying that the latter had the best team on paper in terms of personnel. After mentioning Dempo and Bharat FC, Westwood lauded the competitiveness of the league.
India’s most recognized footballer Sunil Chhetri was all praise for the new signings and stated his belief that the Champions were stronger this time around.
“We’ve definitely improved as a squad since the new players have come in. We all saw Eugeneson (Lyngdoh) during the Federation Cup, Lalchhuanmawia came in and he played a big part too. Udanta (Singh) was injured during the course of the tournament but he’s fit now and we’ll soon see what he’s all about.”
He once again spoke about his new role on the left wing. He was at pains to point out that it was a role that he was still learning to play especially the defensive aspects. Chhetri being deployed on the left wing in the initial games of last season raised a few eyebrows but he’s grown into the role showing more discipline in terms of balancing his defensive responsibility with attacking verve from the left flank.
“Definitely worked on my defensive side. I can’t recall chasing (back) so many times as I’ve done playing playing on the left wing. And what makes it interesting is that it is helping the team. I think, and I’m sure the gaffer would agree, I’m still learning. But I’m enjoying it. The best thing is I’m given a lot of liberty going forward and I’m doing my defensive duties. Till the time I’m getting goals, nobody’s complaining!”
Dempo Team Manager Shailesh Karkera, filling in for the unwell Arthur Papas, along with Clifford Miranda fielded questions from the journalists. This segment of the press conference was characterized by a few more questions about off-pitch matters. With news of a collaboration between Dempo, Salgaocar, and Sporting Clube de Goa in the last week to promote football in Goa, Karkera provided us with more details. Using the popularity generated by the Indian Super League (ISL) was always going to top of the agendas of I-League clubs and it is good to see the clubs working together in order to attract fans to the stadiums. Phrases such as “packaging the product” and “cashing in on interest” were used. With the AIFF not doing a great job in creating a buzz around the I-League, it’s left to the clubs to do so and news of the collaboration will be welcomed by fans of Goan and indeed Indian football.
“The 3 clubs Sporting, Salgaocar, and Dempo had a meeting and they were trying to find ways to promote football in Goa. One of the reasons was definitely Bengaluru FC doing so well last year. Second was FC Goa selling out the stadium in every single game. They want the crossover from the ISL to the I-League. The market is there, crowd is there, it’s about how you package the whole thing. The ISL has been an eye-opener for all 3 clubs so we definitely want to cash in on interest that the ISL has generated.”
The effect of the ISL on the I-League in terms of scheduling is a concern that was raised in this piece before the ISL started. In the immediate aftermath of the Federation Cup, Westwood was critical of the organizers with respect to the scheduling and this was reiterated by Karkera though he refused to be drawn into going as far as saying that the ISL has adversely affected Dempo’s preparation.
“Not only the fact that the games were every 2 days. The Federation Cup started just 1 week after the ISL got over so we had players playing in the ISL, playing for different clubs who we had to transfer to our club. At the same time, we have a couple of International players whose transfers are not yet completed. It’s difficult when you have such a short turnaround time but we know that we are here to play and here to win”
Miranda confirmed that in addition to himself, Haroon Amiri and Tolgay Ozbey were doubts for the game. He was also all praise for his opponents as he highlighted their key players including the likes of John Johnson, Curtis Osano, Walker, and Chhetri and lauded the fact that they play as a team and are more than willing to put in a shift off the ball.
“They are a good team, aren’t they? I believe they are a complete team. A team that plays to win, I wouldn’t say that they’re playing beautiful football but beautiful football doesn’t win you games. They are playing football that gives them the result they desire. They play as a team and their philosophy is built on work ethic. I don’t think they depend on a single player. They are a team that works hard off the ball which is the hallmark of any good side.”
Written by Arnab Ray