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Sunil Chhetri of Bengaluru FC scores a goal during match 21 of the Indian Super League ( ISL ) between Bengaluru FC and Kerala Blasters FC held at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru, India on the 23rd November 2019. Photo by: Vipin Pawar / SPORTZPICS for ISL

Bengaluru FC

Bengaluru FC 1-0 Kerala Blasters FC | Blues put aside pressing concerns

Arnab Ray looks back at the key events of the Indian Super League game that finished Bengaluru FC 1-0 Kerala Blasters FC

The powers that be at the Indian Super League (ISL) clearly spend time and effort into trying to create a gripping narrative and they weren’t going to pass up a chance come the end of the most recent International break. The fixture list threw up another “derby” to mark the return of the league and while the term has been bandied around in a pretty loose manner, there’s no doubt that Bengaluru vs Kerala Blasters is a game that the Indian football fraternity looks forward to. A tongue-in-cheek chant on a faithful Asian night at the Kanteerava saw things escalate quickly and the molehill soon gave rise to the proverbial mountain. Whatever the circumstances, this is a game neither team wanted to lose for more reasons than the 3 points on offer.

Blasters on the front foot

As rivalries go, this particular one has been pretty lopsided on the pitch with the Blues coming into the game with a clearly superior head to head record. Truth be told, the on-field action has rarely matched the intensity of the off-field noise but Eelco Schattorie and his charges were keen to make their mark on the game and started on the front foot. In contrast to previous games between the two sides, Kerala took to the field with a clear plan as Raphael Messi Bouli closed Juanan Gonzalez down and won a corner in the first minute of the game. This set the tone for the first half as Kerala were keen to press high up the pitch especially when Gurpreet Singh Sandhu or one of the members of the Bengaluru back-line had the ball in the first phase of the build up.

The pace of Rahul KP on the left and diligence of Prasanth Karuthadathkuni on the right supplemented the duo of Bouli and Bartholomew Ogbeche upfront. The energy of Sergio Cidoncha and Jeakson Singh in central midfield proved valuable to the press as well as they moved up the pitch in cohesion when the opportunity to do so presented itself. The decision to opt for a high pressing game was laudable given the problems Schattorie faced in defence and the fact that Sunil Chhetri was tasked with leading the line for the home side. Chhetri has many strengths and is adept in the air inside the box but pumping long balls up to him is not a tactic that is going to bear fruit that often.

Outside of the Boot has previously touched on how Cuadrat’s men prefer to build up play from the back but this is always done with a touch of pragmatism. It might be jarring to the purists but putting your foot through the ball when the situation demands it is far from the worst idea in the world. Cuadrat was quick to acknowledge this in his post-game assessment, “My players didn’t realise that they were under pressure by Kerala and it could have been a problem for us, but we spoke at half-time and they understood that it was not the kind of pass to try at that moment.”

Nishu Kumar is penned in with no obvious passing option available

Consider the above image which captures a phase of play beginning with Gurpreet in possession of the ball. The ‘keeper chose to roll the ball out to Nishu Kumar, who was immediately put under pressure by Prashanth. Cidoncha is quick to step up to cut off the easy pass to Erik Paartalu while Bouli is both close enough to press Nishu while also blocking the pass back to Juanan. This results in Nishu opting to pass the ball back to the Gurpreet who was in turn pressed by Ogbeche leading to a turnover in possession. This coordinated press was a constant in the first half and successfully prevented the home side from dictating proceedings as is their wont especially at the Kanteerava.

Both Jeakson and Cidoncha were alert to the prospect of the ball out to Paartalu

Another notable example of Kerala’s press can be seen in the above goal-kick in the 26th minute. Sandhu elects to go short to Paartalu who is immediately pressed by both Jeakson and Cidoncha. The Australian midfielder did manage to control the ball and find Albert Serran who was unable to locate a teammate with his first time clearance. The high press certainly allowed Kerala to edge the early proceedings but the failure to make it count cost them dear with Messi Bouli in particular belying his name to squander a golden chance with a skied left-footed attempt just before the break.

Bengaluru wrests back control

While Kerala made all the early running to suffocate the Blues, the home side still managed to maintain an attacking threat mainly through the use of Udanta Singh as their main outlet. Raphael Augusto thought he’d given BFC the lead only for the assistant referee to rule that the ball had gone out of play before Udanta could wrap his foot around the ball to deliver the cross, a decision swiftly proven wrong on replay. Despite the rub of the green going against Cuadrat’s side, the move was a well constructed one. Harmanjot Khabra shrugged off serious illness to make it to the starting XI and did well to release Udanta into the space behind the Kerala defence. From there it was good coordinated movement inside the box as Chhetri made a dart to the near-post while Augusto made a late run into the vacant space in the centre to tuck away Udanta’s cross only for the linesman to put a stop to the celebrations. The defending Champions maintained a counter-attacking threat throughout the first half putting the wide areas to good use on multiple occasions with notable chances falling to Serran who was unable to crane his neck muscles to guide the ball into an unguarded net and Chhetri who found the side netting on the cusp of half time when a cross to Paartalu would’ve served better.

With the scores level, the question was how long could Kerala maintain their high intensity approach? Cidoncha and Jeakson covered the most distance on the pitch (6.5 and 6.3 kilometres respectively at around the 50 minute mark). This was bound to catch up with them and half time worked wonders for Bengaluru as they managed to completely change the dynamic post the break. The link-up play was back particularly involving the Udanta-Chhetri-Augusto trio in the final third. Some neat combination play from the trio nearly unlocked the Blasters defence but Chhetri’s cut-back was just behind Ashique Kuruniyan. The goal did come soon after as the Blues made their early second half dominance count. Cuadrat’s penchant for set-pieces is well known and a well worked corner saw Dimas Delgado’s cross expertly tucked away by a diving Chhetri after a late run into the box. Goals change games is an oft-used cliche and one that certainly rung true on the night.

Delgado could have immediately doubled the lead after TP Rehenesh was guilty of giving the ball away but saw his shot well blocked by Raju Gaikward. Truth be told it was a second half that was largely controlled by the home side as it looked more likely to become 2-0 than 1-1. Augusto saw his shot well saved by Rehenesh’s outstretched boot with a move that resembled Udanta’s goal against Goa. Gurpreet’s punt up field found the head of Paartalu in the right half-space. The midfielder’s flick-on fell to Udanta and unfortunately for the home side, Augusto couldn’t seal the win. The emergence of recurring attacking patterns and link-up play between the attacking players are good signs moving forward but something that does pose further questions of if and how Manuel Onwu will fit in once he’s back.  The game could have had one final twist in the tale had Kerala’s goal not been wrongly disallowed but a low standard of refereeing has become par for the course in the ISL. Having said that, Bengaluru had a disallowed goal of their own to complain about and Messi Bouli should have been sent off for a second bookable offence in the 75th minute so it’s hard to argue that the late wrong decision was the game’s defining moment.

Concluding thoughts

Bengaluru – Kerala Blasters is not a derby despite how hard people try to make it one but it still undoubtedly carries an extra edge. Result trumps performance in such games but on balance of things it was an intriguing game, a far cry from David James’ Kerala and the lack of threat that they posed. For Bengaluru, two wins on the trot puts them in good stead as they’ve made their way up the table and are now within touching distance of the top.

Eelco Schattorie has just reason to be proud of his players on the back of the first half performance although his bizarre, over the top post match reaction left plenty scratching their heads. There’s hyperbole and then there’s plain delusion. The Dutchman is certainly an interesting character and if nothing else, Kerala Blasters’ season is bound to be an eventful one.

(Featured Image photo by Vipin Pawar / SPORTZPICS for ISL)

Arnab Ray

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