Arnab Ray looks back at the key events of the Indian Super League game that finished Bengaluru FC 2-1 FC Goa
The first ISL game of the calendar year was predictably high profile with the ISL authorities once again showing their penchant for marking occasions with big games. Bengaluru and Goa have been the most consistent sides since the former’s entry into the ISL and it came as no surprise that they comprised 2 of the top 3 coming into this game. Goa have been at their free-flowing best once again and Sergio Lobera’s men came to the Kanteerava boasting a healthy 5 point gap over the home side. Given the fact that the ISL is such a short league, Bengaluru knew that a loss against Goa could all but put paid to their hopes of finishing on top of the pile and qualifying for the AFC Champions League.
BFC lose the midfield battle and struggle with runners from deep
The absence of Raphael Augusto meant that the Blues lined up in a 4-3-3 formation with Harmanjot Khabra slotting into midfield alongside the ever-present duo of Erik Paartalu and Dimas Delgado. Khabra’s industry is well-suited to a press-oriented midfield and Carles Cuadrat’s men began the game with a view to suffocate Goa in the first phase of the build-up. It’s an approach that worked well at the Fatorda in the reverse fixture but one that Goa countered with great aplomb this time around. The away side’s first half display was certainly right up there with the best from any visiting ISL side at the Kanteerava and much of it was to do with how they played around the BFC press and found spaces in front of the back 4.
In theory, it looked like the general idea for Bengaluru was for Khabra to aid the forwards in the press primarily sticking close to Ahmed Jahouh, Goa’s orchestrator-in-chief. One of Delgado and Paartalu would situationally move up often following Hugo Boumous as he dropped deep in midfield. As with any press focused on 1 player, it leaves space for others to capitalize on and that’s just what Lenny Rodrigues did. The former Bengaluru man put forth an assured display in the heart of the Gaurs midfield as he regularly picked passes through the opposition lines. The central midfielder finished the game with a passing accuracy of 82%, impressive by ISL standards. With the home side’s midfield press often bypassed, the defence had their fair share of problems in the first half which were only further compounded by a fluid Goa attack. Ferran Corominas often dropped deep with Brandon Fernandes drifting in-field to take up positions between the lines and the speed of Jackichand Singh was a constant menace on the right. Seriton Fernandes and Mandar Rao Dessai weren’t shy of taking up high positions on either flank as the Gaurs posed question after question to the Bengaluru defence in the first half.
Some of Bengaluru’s midfield struggles can be seen clearly below in an attack from Goa in the eighteenth minute.
Boumous has dropped into his own half to pick the ball up and attracted the attention of Paartalu. Meanwhile, both Delgado and Khabra, circled in the above graphic, are hovering near the half line probably looking to contain Jahouh (not in frame). This leaves Coro with space to drift into as can be seen on the left of the graphic. In a possession-based system, the full-back has an important role as the ball going out wide naturally causes the opposition’s defensive shape to shift towards the ball typified in the above graphic by Seriton Fernandes who is on hand to receive the ball from Boumous and subsequently find Coro.
Juanan Gonzalez is forced to step up in an attempt to deal with Coro and none of the BFC midfielders track Boumous’ run. The Frenchman receives the pass with space in front of him and has a chance to run directly at a retreating defence with their spearhead in Juanan not in position. Simple movement and a pass through the lines to bypass the press has resulted in a promising attacking situation. The move eventually breaks down owing to a loose touch from Jackichand Singh who was culpable for Goa’s wastefulness on more than one occasion. This was far from an isolated incident either as the likes of Coro, Boumous, and Lenny all squandered chances in the first half. It came as no surprise when Goa’s equalizer did eventually arrive in the form of a well constructed goal with Boumous on hand to calmly slot the ball past Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in the BFC goal.
Much like the earlier example Paartalu has been attracted to the ball with Khabra and Delgado taken out of the game from a defensive standpoint entirely. Once again the full-back, Mandar in this instance, is heavily involved. The ball is rolled in towards Boumous who neatly steps over the ball and his run is duly found by Coro’s neat touch. It was a well constructed goal and illustrates perfectly how Goa won the midfield battle but it was their profligacy and the grit of their opponents that meant that they made the short trip back home with nothing to show for their concerted efforts. As has become the norm in ISL, there were questions regarding the ball hitting the referee in the build-up to the goal as a particularly animated Cuadrat pointed out to the camera bemoaning the lack of consistency especially since the referee had restarted play in a similar situation earlier in the game.
Cuadrat rings in the changes
With the onus on the defending Champions, there had to be response in the second half. By Chhetri’s own admission, the half time team talk was “feisty” and Cuadrat matched his words with action as he took off Udanta Singh for a returning Manuel Onwu. The Spaniard minced no words when discussing the decision to substitute the speedy winger. It’s always tempting to keep Udanta on the pitch just because of the speed he offers especially when the game is stretched in the latter stages. This, however, is where Ashique Kuruniyan’s signing makes a big difference as Cuadrat can now afford to rejig things and still maintain an attacking outlet to keep the opposition defence on their toes. Chhetri moved to the left wing and Kuruniyan was tasked with bombing up and down the right flank.
A different Bengaluru side came out at the start of the second half as they managed to keep possession for sustained spells and garner territorial advantage with a series of set-pieces. The distance between Delgado and Paartalu was reduced as compared to the first half and the full-backs were now venturing forward more often as well. In fact, the goal eventually arrived as a result of good play from Nishu Kumar to win a corner. A cross swung in from Delgado was met by a late arriving Sunil Chhetri and young Mohammad Nawaz failed to keep the ball from trickling over the line. It was a goal that was coming as the game opened up with both sides trading counter-attacks like it’s going out of fashion. With around 15 minutes left on the clock, Cuadrat decided that it was time to go for broke with a double substitution, both of which were interesting calls.
The aforementioned Onwu was forced to suffer the ignominy of a substitute being substituted as he was replaced by Semboi Haokip but as revealed by Cuadrat it was a move orchestrated in the changing room and the lack of response from Onwu when his number came up only adds credence to that. The jury is still decidedly out on the striker as he might have gained praise from his manager for his effort in his thirty odd minute appearance but he was sluggish at best. The arrival of Jamaican striker Deshorn Brown adds more firepower to the Bengaluru attack and it remains to be seen where Onwu fits into the new pecking order once Brown is deemed ready for action. The final substitution saw Khabra withdrawn for young Suresh Wangjam. The former Indian Arrows midfielder acquitted himself quite well after coming on and even found himself on the right hand side after Kuruniyan was struck down by cramp towards the end of the game forcing the home side to finish the game with ten men. The decision to opt for Wangjam rather than Eugeneson Lyngdoh was one that raised a few eyebrows. Whether that was a horses-for-courses change or a rather more symbolic changing of the guard is another question that could be answered in the coming weeks.
It was a fascinating game of football but as often in games of such magnitude, it took a couple of moments of quality coupled with desire to snatch all three points. A free kick for Goa was repelled by Chhetri in his own box with an up and under clearance. Haokip did well to recover the loose ball and find Delgado. The experienced midfielder showed some of the silky skills that the Kanteerava faithful have come to love and sorted his feet out with alarming speed to pick out Kuruniyan. The Indian International got a tad bit lucky with the ball breaking to him but made no mistake in releasing a rapidly overlapping Chhetri. The BFC skipper left all comers behind to bear down on young Nawaz in the Goan goal. As the stands waited with bated breath for what seemed like an eternity, the young ‘keeper blinked first and made a premature movement to his left leaving Chhetri with the relatively simple task of slotting the ball into the bottom corner.
It was certainly not a vintage performance as even the most ardent of West Block Blues would concede. However, it was a result that leaves the ISL table tantalisingly poised with what looks like a three horse race to the finish between ATK, Bengaluru, and Goa. With qualification to continental football now based on league standings rather than the playoffs, there’s little chance of any of the top teams resting on their laurels should playoff qualification be sealed early as we saw last year. Whisper it quietly at the risk of incurring the wrath of the corporate honchos at the helm of Indian football but we could have a potential situation where the biggest games of the season aren’t the 2-legged semifinal or indeed the final. Let’s (proper) football.