AFC Cup 2016: Bengaluru FC on cusp of history as they take on Johor Darul Ta'zim in semi-final
“We go to the semi-final... This [result] has to increase our self-esteem!”
Alberto Roca’s post-match victory speech in the locker room after Bengaluru FC beat Tampines Rovers may have been delivered in broken Engish but the message was clear. A historic result had seen the Blues qualify for the AFC Cup semi-finals for the first time in the club’s history – exactly three years after their first-ever professional game at Bangalore Football Stadium.
Last season, Bengaluru FC had been knocked out in the Round of 16 by South China. But, this season, wins over Kitchee in the Round of 16 and the Singapore-based Rovers in the quarter-finals has given Indian football a breath of fresh air.
Bengaluru were expected to be rusty when they played the Rovers, having not played competitive football since May. They were again at a disadvantage when they played the first leg behind closed doors at Kanteerava Stadium after riots in the city that week gave rise to security concerns.
But a 1-0 win at home even without the vocal West Block faithful roaring them on and then a 0-0 result away, where the Blues held on until the very end, saw them upset the Singapore side that were favourites to progress when the draw was made. Fans who have been waiting since May to watch their beloved Blues in action will get another chance in 2016 thanks to the result.
The Blues are only the third Indian club to make it this far. Dempo lost 5-1 on aggregate to Lebanese side Safa in 2008 while East Bengal lost 7-2 on aggregate to Kuwait side Al-Kuwait in 2013. The west Asian sides usually dominate the competition but the Blues are up against the defending champions this season – Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) from Malaysia.
Bengaluru and Johor have already crossed paths in the group stage, with Bengaluru losing 1-0 at home and 3-0 away. Safiq Bin Rahim had scored in both the home and away legs and is third on the list of top goalscorers in the competition with seven goals. Argentine players Juan Martín Lucero and Jorge Pereyra Diaz are also ones to watch out for with six and five goals in the AFC Cup so far.
There is no Bengaluru FC player in the top 10 goalscorers in the AFC Cup. The only Indian player is Mohun Bagan’s Jeje Lalpekhlua with six goals. But therein lies the Blues’ major strength. The team is not dependent on a single player and teamwork has been their ethos ever since Ashley Westwood took charge in 2013.
New signings Alvaro Rubio and Cameron Watson have also settled down quickly. Rubio may be 37 but his experience and calm head has helped the side when on the ball.
Bengaluru FC players contracted to ISL teams will play in AFC Cup
While the country readies itself for the three-month extravaganza that is the Indian Super League (ISL), the club owned by JSW have quietly but steadily made the right calls after their second I-League triumph in three years of existence. Westwood had departed the club having done his job and Roca was appointed soon after.
It sent the message that the club meant business and considered the AFC Cup a high priority. Players who had signed contracts with ISL clubs were retained and they will not be released until the Blues’ campaign in Asia comes to an end.
“The I-League players have been loaned to the ISL clubs,” said a Mumbai City FC source. The club had signed four Bengaluru FC players, Chhetri being their top signing. “Since the ISL clashes with the AFC Cup, they will stay with the parent club until the end of the competition.”
That is good news for Bengaluru FC fans as the first and second legs of the semi-final will be played on 28 September and 19 October. The ISL kicks off on 1 October.
As many as 12 players will miss the initial stages of the ISL as a result, including the likes of skipper Sunil Chhetri, goalkeeper Amrinder Singh, and midfielders Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Udanata Singh. Other notable players include CK Vineeth, Rino Anto, Lalchhuanmawia Fanai, Daniel Lalhlimpuia, Keegan Pereira, Malsawmzuala, Alwyn George and Salam Ranjan Singh.
Can the underdogs spring a surprise?
There is no question that Bengaluru are the underdogs here. And Roca has a task on his hands to pull a rabbit out of his hat if the Indian side are to qualify for the final. Larkin Stadium has a capacity of 30,000 and they regularly pull huge crowds.
The players have not backed down either. “The conditions will be hostile and the odds are against us,” midfielder Alwyn George said. “But we need to stick to our plan and give ourselves the best chance to create history.”
CK Vineeth, the Blues’ only goalscorer in the quarter-finals, also spoke of the self-belief in the dressing room. “There is no reason to doubt that we can go a step further. It won’t be easy but there is a belief in the dressing room. We’ll give this our all.”
The second leg is at home and that will be to the Indian club’s advantage. In spite of a few heart-in-mouth moments in the quarter-finals, Roca has managed to oversee a side that has kept two clean sheets in the two games played. Keeping a clean sheet against JDT will be the team’s toughest assignment yet.
But will Bengaluru play on the back foot? Not if Chhetri has something to say about it.
“We will not be playing ultra-defensive football,” he said in an interview. “We will play our usual game; striking a balance between attacking and defence.”
Bengaluru FC have a chance to script history but it will not be handed to them on a silver platter. A strong performance at the back will be key but the team must take their chances in attack. They have been guilty of wasting numerous opportunities and against JDT, every single chance makes a difference.
Images courtesy of Bengaluru FC