A season to forget for BFC

A season to forget for BFC

football

Moments like this were few and far between for defending champions Bengaluru FC who bowed out in semifinals after losing to ATK.

At the end of February, Bengaluru FC coach Carles Cuadrat called the next three games ‘the three finals’. The games were the AFC Cup preliminary qualifier play-off second leg against Maziya S&RC and the two Indian Super League semifinal clashes against ATK. And in the space of just 12 days, their season unravelled. 

They lost to Maziya of penalties to bow out of the AFC Cup before losing to ATK 3-2 in the two-legged semifinals. The ignominy of not reaching the AFC Cup group stage will hurt the most but for the first time BFC will also finish their season without any silverware.

“The beginning of the season we had three aims. One was to finish on top in the league and be the first team to qualify for AFC Champions League, second was to enter the group stage and reach the round 16 of the AFC Cup and third was to win the ISL. We didn’t achieve any of them so it’s not a season we want to repeat,” admitted Mandar Tamhane, CEO of Benglauru FC.

As a side that built a reputation as serial winners, they have to be judged on the same. It was also the first time that Sunil Chhetri, and not for the lack of trying, could not pull the team out of trouble. The captain, who played the business end of the season with a hamstring injury, scored nine goals in the ISL to finish top scorer for the seventh straight season. The next highest goalscorer was Deshorn Brown, who came midway through the season, with three in the league. And there lies the biggest problem that faced the former champions: lack of goals.

It’s a testament to their defensive prowess, propped up on the shoulders of the ever-reliant centre back Juanan and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, that they reached the play-offs. The Indian number one finished with 11 clean sheets, a record in the league.

After injuries to Manuel Onwu and Raphael Augusto, brought in to fill the gaps left by Miku and Xisco Hernandez, Cuadrat, never the most vibrant of coaches in terms of playing style, built the season on counter-attacking football. He had the defence to do it. But unfortunately, lacking Miku’s movements and ability to single-handedly create chances for himself, goals were not forthcoming. For this, he relied on set-pieces. While that did work for a time, in the end the chasm was too big to make the final.

Udanta Singh, who last season made big strides and looked poised to step out of Chhetri’s shadow had his worst season yet, returning just one goal all season. Ashique Kuruniyan’s addition raised hopes of an all-Indian front three. He returned one goal and one assist. Yes, he was played out of position at times but that numbers still point to an experiment that was unsuccessful. Rahul Bheke didn’t play to the level he did last season.

“There were certain players in key positions who could have done better. Normally we bank on our Indian players and I think a few of them could have done better but these things happen in football. It’s part and parcel of the game,” Tamhane said.

Over the season, Cuadrat alluded that his wish was to retain the team from last year but budget restrictions forced the club to release Miku and Xisco. Perhaps their recruitment was not on point here. The incoming Onwu struggled with injuries and was more of a finisher. At BFC, he struggled but his seven goals from four games with Odisha FC showed his caliber, alluding to the fact that perhaps the former’s playing style didn’t suit him. Augusto, who had a history of knee injury, too missed most of the season.

However, the club did well to replace the injured players with the addition of Brown, Kavaughn Frater and Nili Perdomo in January. But it never fully came together for Cuadrat who was also a tad unlucky at times. Perhaps they could have looked into their B team for a solution, the glimpses they showed in the few chances they did receive showed promise, but with the jump in level, it’s easier said than done. Loaning them out for experience this season augurs well for the future.

The bench strength too was lacking with no proper cover in defence. The team largely made do with the versatility of the players as more often than not, the substitutions available were only in attack. Ashique, Nishu Kumar, Nili and Bheke all played as left back over the course of the season while Harmanjot Khabra, who has been used as a human Swiss knife during his time at the club, too played multiple roles. The one bright spot in the otherwise underwhelming season was Suresh Singh Wangjam. The 19-year-old came into the team in the second half of the season and was the stand out player.

There will be changes ahead of next season, that is certain. The team needs fresh impetus, better defenders and an overall squad refreshment. They need someone to take the burden off Chhetri’s shoulders too. Key players like Erik Paartalu and Dimas Delgado are coming to the end of their contract and decisions have to be made. Recruitment will be tricky and the club has a mixed bag in terms of their track record on foreigners. The never-say-die attitude is in the club’s DNA and recruitment has to be done to ensure they don’t lose their soul.

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