Bengaluru got off to a rocky start in their bid to defend their I-League title but have gone from strength to strength as the season has unfolded. In contrast, early leaders Mohun Bagan have faltered as the season has approached the business end. A poor run of 3 defeats in the last 5 games for the Kolkata giants including a loss to bottom side Sporting Clube de Goa the previous day has blown the title race wide open. With 3 games to play for the 2 sides including a sumptuous clash between them at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on the final day, this season has all the ingredients for an exciting finish. At the other end of the spectrum, Salgaocar are scrapping for their lives and found themselves at the bottom of the table coming into the game. Thus, there was all to play for when the 2 sides locked horns at the Kanteerava Stadium.
Bengaluru: 28. Ralte; 16. Shankar, 6. Johnson, 4. Osano, 23. Lalchuammawia; 14. Lyngdoh, 12. Thoi, 10. Walker, 11. Chhetri; 31. Vineeth, 7. Rooney.
Salgaocar: 1. Karanjit; 19. Colaco, 3. Fernandes, 2. Kasonde, 5. Gurinder; 25. Lamare, 20. Zakeer; 16. Khalid, 10. Douhou, 34. Mascarenhas; 7. Duffy.
Bengaluru 3-1 Salgaocar
Having deployed a 3-5-2 system in the week against Persipura Jayapura, Ashley Westwood chose to return to the 4-4-2 formation that he’s preferred in the recent weeks. The energetic CK Vineeth was chosen alongside Sean Rooney upfront with Eugenson Lyngdoh playing on the right wing and Talent Radar prospect Shankar showed his versatility again by slotting in at right-back. Salgaocar played a 4-2-3-1 formation with main man Darryl Duffy upfront and Pierre Douhou playing in the number 10 position. Karanjit Singh was preferred in goal ahead of the experienced Subrata Paul with captain Rocus Lamare featuring alongside Zakeer Mundampara in the double pivot.
Bengaluru utilize overlapping full-backs
Salgaocar tried to keep a compact shape with the wingers dropping back in order to form the customary 2 banks of 4 used by so many teams to crowd the defence and cut off spaces for the opposition attack. However, the Champions have evolved as an attacking unit this season gaining the ability to vary the focus of the attack in different situations. The shift in home ground to Kanteerava has necessitated this evolution owing to the bigger dimensions of the pitch when compared to the Bangalore Football Stadium. Apart from the flexibility in attack, there’s also been an increase in goals from midfield this time around. Eugeneson Lyngdoh, who played a critical role in the game, has been a revelation in midfield providing goals and assists from open play as well as dead ball situations.
On the particular night, the home side used the flanks well to trouble the Salgaocar defence. As mentioned above, Derrick Pereira set up his side in 2 narrow banks of 4 to thwart the Blues’ attack leaving space in the wide areas. Chhetri and Lyngdoh both tended to cut infield to try and link-up play with the central duo which meant that the overlapping full-backs namely Shankar Sampingiraj and Lalchhuanmawia Fanai had space to drive into. They were not tracked by the opposition wingers on multiple occasions and Joshua Walker’s passing range saw him picking out their runs more often than not. The quality on the final ball was lacking though and the home side weren’t able to capitalize on a number of promising situations in the first half. It was one such scenario that did lead to the first goal of the game. Shankar was found by Walker with a well weighted cross field ball and the youngster did well to win the corner from which Thoi Singh found the back of the net.
There was another factor that warranted the focus of the attack on the flanks: Karanjit’s discomfort in dealing with crosses. The ‘keeper looked far from convincing in his attempts to come out and punch the ball, something Bengaluru were quick to pounce on with Lyngdoh on hand to deliver quality crosses from dead ball situations. 2 of the Blues’ 3 goals came from corners with Karanjit at fault for the first and could arguably have done better on the second.
Darryl Duffy’s movement troubles the Bengaluru defence
AFC’s 4 foreigner rule is enforced in the I-League limiting the number of foreign imports on the pitch. Out of the 4, most teams reserve one, if not two spots for the forward line and Salgaocar are no different. Darryl Duffy, who was the joint top scorer last season along with Sunil Chhetri, led the line for the Goan side and was an absolute handful for John Johnson. The home side call their home ground the fortress and the central defensive duo of Johnson and Curtis Osano play a major role in rendering it impenetrable. Widely acknowledged to be the best defensive partnership in the league, they’ve played a major part in Bengaluru’s successes in their short history.
Duffy however was in no mood to pay heed to reputations as he put forth a quality performance for the away side. The striker scored a great goal to draw his side level courtesy a diving header but what was more impressive was his movement off the ball. The Scot continuously dropped into pockets of space in deeper areas dragging Johnson out from the back thus creating space for Douhou to run into or penetrating into the space himself on the back of quick turns and a burst of acceleration. In fact, most of Salgaocar’s attacking impetus was provided either directly by Duffy or indirectly as a result of his movement.
Ashley Westwood went for a system with 2 men in central midfield with Walker and Thoi Singh patrolling the engine room. Thoi was the more active of the 2 pressers and while this energy was important, it also meant that it opened up the space for Duffy to drift into. Thus, it came as no surprise when Westwood decided to change it up at half time opting to shift Vineeth to the right wing and allow Lyngdoh to slot into his more regular role as one of the 2 pressing midfielders. This allowed Joshua Walker to sit in front of the defence and cut off the space on offer to Duffy.
Sean Rooney exploits the space in between the left-back and the centre-back
Normally deployed as the lone striker, Rooney reveled in a front 2 alongside Vineeth. The latter is always full of energy and does most of the closing down thus easing the load on his strike partner. This allowed the Australian striker to focus his attention on taking up promising positions in attack. The left footed striker often drifted out to a slightly wider areas and picked up positions between the left-back and centre-back. The best piece of football in the game came in the first half with Chhetri’s neat first time flick finding Rooney in the left half-space. The striker calmly picked out Vineeth whose shot was saved well by Karanjit. Rooney had a few more chances from similar positions but unfortunately most of them came on his weaker right foot and he was unable to make them count.
He did have a telling say in the match though as one of his last contributions was some great work on the left to find Vineeth. The striker’s diving header fell kindly to Lyngdoh who made no mistake in putting away the loose ball from a few yards out. The timing of the goal was impeccable too as Salgaocar had just equalized. With not much time remaining, it was that man Lyngdoh again who popped up with a crucial strike.
Where does this leave them?
Given the short duration of the I-League (each team plays only 20 games), Mohun Bagan threatened to run away with the title after their bright start. The defending Champions were never going to give in without a fight though and now find themselves with their destiny in their own hands. Two wins in their last two games against Dempo and Mohun Bagan will see them retain the title regardless of other results. Salgaocar on the other hand remain bottom of the league though they are far from done and dusted just yet. With only goal difference separating the bottom 3 Goan clubs and Mumbai FC just a single point in front of the trio, Salgaocar will back themselves to survive the drop.
Written by Arnab Ray