Bengaluru FC is set to face a tough baptism when they lock horns with wounded Kolkatan giants Mohun Bagan in their opening I-League clash here on Sunday.
With nothing to lose after being told that they would be immune to relegation, Bengaluru FC would be aiming to kick start their quest to put Bangalore back on the national footballing map on a bright note.
Once a major contributor of talent to top clubs in the country, the Garden City has been stuck in reverse gear for a while now and the exit of Hindustan Aeronautics Sports Club two seasons ago nearly spelt the doom for the Beautiful Game.
However, the arrival of Jindal Steel Works-owned Bengaluru FC has brought plenty of cheer to the fans in the City. Their enthusiasm was apparent during the pre-season phase and the team has done enough homework to raise optimism. They have pieced together a good squad, roping in Indian strikers Sunil Chhetri and Robin Singh, foreigners John Johnson, Curtis Osano, Johnny Menyongar and Sean Rooney.
With former EPL player Ashley Westwood handed the coaching responsibility and Pradhyum Reddy as his assistant, they have given enough indications that they are here to challenge the big guns and not just make up the numbers. With the stadium also been a given a much-needed facelift and tickets too sold out in advance, the return of I-League to Bangalore should indeed be a festive one.
On the pitch, Chhetri and Rooney will share the attacking duties while Menyongar and Malemngamba Meitei may don the midfield role. With the team not having played much and Westwood not keen on revealing his strategies, Sunday will offer a glimpse on what their ambitions are.
“There are no nerves, no expectations,” said Westwood on Saturday. “We’ve done our homework and we just want to go out there and play and express ourselves.”
Bagan, once the powerhouses of Indian football, faced a threat of existence in I-League last season when they were docked 12 points for failing to turn up in the second-half against arch-rivals East Bengal.
While opinions were divided over the All India Football Federation’s move, Bagan rode out the storm with great resolve, starting from the scratch in the middle of the season to eventually secure their place among the nation’s elite clubs.
“It was like winning two titles,” said coach Karim Bencherifa. “What happened to us (points penalty) was bad. We were pushed to the bottom and almost 10 points behind the team above us. If you see our performance during the latter half of the season, we were better than anybody. Moreover, the guys showed great character to fight off relegation.”
Moroccan Bencherifa, a great motivator who powered Salgaocar to I-League crown in 2010-11, will have to use his famed managerial skills as Bagan seek to regain their lost pride and glory. Many key players who played a pivotal role in Bagan’s fightback last season have the left the club for various reasons and with ace striker Odafa Okolie too out injured for at least three weeks, Bencherifa has some early worries.
In the absence of Odafa, CS Sabeeth will assume the lead striker role and may pair up with Shankar Oraon. Bulk of the feeding has to be done by Japanese playmaker Katsumi Yusa while the seasoned Denson Devadas may play the holding role.