The first couple of fixtures in the East Zone of the AFC Cup Round of 16 saw both the away teams coming away with victories. Bengaluru continued the trend as they claimed a spot in the quarterfinals courtesy a commendable 2-3 win against Kitchee SC.
The 2016 edition of the AFC Cup is the first in which the West and East Zone teams are kept apart from each other right up to the final. This ensures that most of the knockout games are evenly contested and gives some of the smaller teams from East Asia a chance to go deep into the tournament. The fact that the Round of 16 is a solitary knockout game rather than a two-legged affair just serves to add to the occasion.
Fearless Bengaluru take the fight to Kitchee
Often in such fixtures, the pattern of the game is set. The away side is expected to sit deep and let the home team dictate proceedings before daring to venture on counter-attacks when they can afford to. These tactics which have formed the basis of many a smash-and-grab victory were nowhere to be seen in what was a thoroughly entertaining game at the Mong Kok Stadium. Bengaluru have continuously bucked the trend in their 3 year existence and did just that to write another chapter in their short, and yet illustrious, history.
The recently crowned Champions of India started the game on the front-foot as they pressed high up the pitch and committed men in attack. The forward line had a decidedly youthful look with the absences of CK Vineeth and Kim Song Yong meaning that is was up to young Daniel Lahlimpuia to lead the line, flanked by Udanta Singh and Sunil Chhetri.
To declare the high pressing game of Bengaluru a success would be a mistake as Kitchee’s composure on the ball and ability to play around the press saw the home side dominating proceedings in the opening spell. The Hong Kong club deservedly took the lead through a back post header from Rufino and a difficult task for the away side looked near impossible. However, the away side refused to go into their shell and continued playing their game even in light of the early goal conceded. The Blues slowly edged back into the game with a possession based approach before a quickfire brace from captain Sunil Chhetri saw the game turn on its head in minutes. Unsurprisingly, it was Eugeneson Lyngdoh who was central to the comeback as he won the penalty. Once again the confidence with which the team approached the game was on show as Chhetri dispatched the penalty with a sumptuous Panenka.
With both teams getting a goal on either side of half time, the second half saw the tempo of the game slow down which worked to the away side’s advantage. With a lead to protect, Bengaluru were a bit more pragmatic in their approach off the ball as the defensive and midfield lines moved a few yards deeper. As Kitchee went in search of an equalizer, the game was predictably stretched which meant the counter attack was always on for the Indian side. In fact it seems incredible that there were no goals in the last half hour of the game with opportunities for both sides, including gilt-edged chances for both Chhetri and Daniel.
Michael Collins plays a crucial role
The injuries to Lyngdoh and Joshua Walker at the start of the domestic season saw Bengaluru’s midfield struggle to impose itself on their opponents which meant that manager Ashley Westwood had to often opt for substance rather than style. The signing of Michael Collins was meant to plug the sizable hole in midfield but asking the midfielder to hit the ground running was a big ask. However, as the season has gone on, Collins has brought his experience to the side and finished the domestic season as one of Bengaluru’s better players.
The central midfielder provided another assured performance in the heart of midfield alongside Lyngdoh and a more attacking oriented Alwyn George. In what could be the his last game for the club, the 30-year-old was calm on the ball especially as the away side adopted a more counter-attacking approach. One of the main criticisms of Collins in the first half of the season was his defensive contribution, or the lack thereof to be more precise. The Irishman was not found wanting in this regard on the night. The midfielder isn’t a big tackler but he certainly put a shift in as he selectively participated in Bengaluru’s press and sat in front of the back 4 when the situation demanded it.
Trust in youth
It speaks volumes of the people in charge that even in only 3 years, the club has a distinct identity and set of traditions upon which they can build the future. A big part of this is the belief that Ashley Westwood and his staff place in young Indian talent. This point may sound repetitive because well, it is. Week after week, regardless of the opposition and occasion, Bengaluru put their faith in the host of young Indian talent in their squad and to the immense credit of these youngsters, they deliver the goods more often than not.
As mentioned above, in the absence of Vineeth and Kim, it was the 18-year-old Daniel Lahlimpuia leading the line for the club. The role of a lone striker away from home in a knockout game is one of the hardest out there but Daniel certainly held his own. The youngster understandably drifted in and out of the game in the first half but was on hand to pounce on an errant backpass to score what ultimately turned out to be the winner. He should have had another late in the game as he somehow contrived to miss an open goal but we’ll let that one slide!
Equally important to Bengaluru’s attacking fortunes was Udanta Singh. The speedy winger is touted as one of the next big things in Indian football and he showed why in an impressive performance over the 90 minutes. Originally starting out on the right wing, Udanta became the focal point of attack in the second half. While pace and skill is something the 19-year-old has always possessed, there’s been a marked improvement in his hold-up play. Already part of Stephen Constantine’s plans for the national side, Udanta is well on his way to making a mark for both club and country.
The game ended with Bengaluru having as many as 5 players below the age of 23 on the pitch (Amrinder Singh, Nishu Kumar, Seimenlen Doungel, Udanta, and Daniel). Add to this list the talents of Malsawmzuala, Salam Ranjan Singh, Shankar Sampingiraj, and Lalthuammawia Ralte, and you have a whole host of young players who have impressed for the Blues. There has been a lot of talk on what has to be done in order to improve the state of Indian football. Whatever the final decision maybe, whatever form the nation’s top flight league may take, it is imperative that young Indian footballers be given a chance to showcase their skill. They, along with the next generation, must be nurtured and given every chance to succeed and develop as footballers. This long term thinking is what Indian football desperately needs. The new top-flight league could attract as many “big name” foreign players as they’d like, there’s nothing wrong in that. But to refuse to acknowledge the need to provide a structure and pathway for these youngsters would be disastrous and would render said league as useful as lipstick on a pig.
Image Courtesy: Lagardere Sports
Written by Arnab Ray