Ever since Bengaluru FC burst on to the scenes of Indian football five years ago, there's been a certain sense of expectation from the side to achieve something special. In their debut year, they became the first-ever side to win the I-League on debut, while the second saw them clinch the Federation Cup. And the third was special for more than one reason.
It was a year that saw Bengaluru take their performance a notch higher and surprise many with their achievements. They not only managed to pocket their second I-League title that year, but also became the first-ever Indian side to reach the final of the AFC Cup, a Europa League equivalent for the Asian clubs. And with this trend continuing with a Federation Cup win last year, the expectations have reached a crescendo as they prepare to take the Indian Super League (ISL) by storm.
Since their inception, Bengaluru have grown from strength to strength with every passing day - setting new standards and benchmarks. A foundation that resembles that of a European club -- shrewd signings, especially on the foreign front and a system where the head coach has the final say in things pertaining to the team -- and all this means Albert Roca has had the liberty to go on with his business of delivering results without much fuss. "I don't have to worry about that (management) as long as I am getting results on the pitch," he once said addressing his relation with the club management. "When it comes to the team, I have the final word. The management believes in my philosophy at that has helped us reach this far."
This year too that doesn't seem changing as Bengaluru will look to bring their winning mentality into the much more glamorous spectacle and show that they can cut it in the cash-rich league.
One of the things that have worked in favour of this side so far is the financial backing that it has received over the years, a factor that made Bengaluru a cut above the rest in the I-League. But with the sides involved in the ISL too having a relatively greater financial clout and technical strength as compared to the clubs in the I-League, it would be interesting to see how Bengaluru handle this change.
Over the years, if there's one thing that has put Bengaluru in good stead as compared to their competitors is the stability that they have achieved in maintaining their spine. The likes of skipper Sunil Chhetri, defenders John Johnson and Rino Anto, and midfielders Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Udanta Singh have been a part of most of Bengaluru's exploits in the past. However, with the ISL not allowing more than two senior players and two U-21 players to be retained from the current squads in order to make way for a draft, Bengaluru were in a spot of bother heading into their new venture.
They opted to retain Chhetri, Udanta, Nishu Kumar (U-21), and Malsawmzuala (U-21) along with foreigners Johnson and Juan Gonzales, but they also didn't allow the draft to have a telling effect on the squad as they bought back a number of first-team players at the July 23 event. "Our idea was very simple. We knew what we wanted. The coach wanted a certain players and we went out for them," the club's Chief Technical Officer Mandar Thamane had said after the draft. "We were not looking at big names. We retained a few players and rest was about filling the jigsaw, and we went about doing that."
While this move would see the likes of Lenny Rodrigues, Harmanjot Khabra, Lalthuammawia Ralte and Alwyn George return to Bengaluru, the city side had to part ways with established names in Lyngdoh, Anto, Sandesh Jhingan and CK Vineeth. But that hardly seems to bother Bengaluru as they roped in quality replacements in Rahul Bheke, Thongkhosiem Haokip and Zohmingliana Ralte. And with promising foreign recruits filling in the eight-player quota, Roca looks to have assembled a squad that is capable of challenging the best in the ISL this season.
There's no doubt in the manner Roca, a former assistant manager at Barcelona, would line-up his squad on any given day. While possession-based football has been the feature at Bengaluru for over a year, it has never looked like what one is used to seeing. While in the past, Roca blamed this on lack of proper players to implement his style, this time though that would not be the case.
The Spaniard has made sure that the Spanish influx continued at Bengaluru with Dimas Delgado, Toni Dovale, Edu Garcia and Braulio NÃ³brega joining Gonzales for this season. While Venezuelan NicolÃ¡s Ladislao Fedor Flores aka Miku completed their quota of foreigners, a closer look into the striker would reveal his Spanish roots as he spent majority of his career in Spain before joining the JSW-owned side. And while the new recruits will definitely aid Roca in establishing his style at Bengaluru, it's also likely that the Spaniard will cherish the versatility that his side can provide.
Roca has structured Bengaluru to be comfortable with both a three-man and four-man backline, and that is likely to continue in the ISL as well. With first-choice goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu set to miss the initial four games of the season to a technicality, Lalthuammawia Ralte is expected to start the season for Bengaluru. Johnson is sure make a return to the side after missing the AFC Cup campaign and will join Gonzales in the back with Bheke most likely being the third man in what has been a back-three for Bengaluru for majority of last season.
Khabra and Nishu Kumar are expected to put on the role of the wing-backs, while it would be interesting to see who Roca chooses to go with in the attack. Miku and NÃ³brega are tipped to be Roca's answer to miss-firing forwards from last season, while choosing between an ever-improving Udanta and Garcia, a former Real Zaragoza winger, could be one of the difficult decisions that the Spanish tactician will have to make when he sits down to name his playing XI as Bengaluru join the ISL bandwagon.