I-League: Round 23 Preview – Bengaluru’s final home assignment
We are much very much into the business end of the Airtel I-League and there is a full round of matches this weekend with three fixtures to be televised LIVE. The action starts later today with Bengaluru FC taking on Pune FC in their final home game and the clash is a potential title decider with only seven points separating the sides and the visitors still have a game in hand. After that relegation-threatened Churchill Brothers face local rivals Dempo with the Red Machines desperate to build on their win over Pune last week and get further away from the drop zone.
There is a Kolkata derby on Saturday and it is a relegation six-pointer as United Sports Club and Mohammedan Sporting go head-to-head in Kalyani. Mohammedan currently occupy the rock-bottom spot but they are only four points behind United SC and have played a game less so a win here would be massive for the Durand Cup and IFA Shield holders. Rangdajied United would be hoping for another slip-up from Mohammedan because the Shillong club have arguably the toughest fixture among the relegation contenders as they face an away test against title-chasers Salgaocar.
There are two more games on Sunday with East Bengal hoping to remain in the title hunt with a home victory over Sporting Clube. The Kolkata giants haven’t won back-to-back games this season and were held to a 2-2 draw by Mumbai FC in the last round. But Sporting Clube have lost ground in the title race after failing to win their last five games and that will give Armando Colaco’s side confidence. Shillong Lajong also end their home campaign this weekend with a match against draw specialists Mumbai, who are still not certain of safety but have earned crucial points on the road in their last two games.
Friday: Bengaluru FC vs Pune FC (16:00; LIVE on Ten Action), Churchill Brothers vs Dempo (18:00; LIVE on Ten Action)
Saturday: United SC vs Mohammedan Sporting (14:30), Salgaocar vs Rangdajied United (17:00)
Sunday: East Bengal vs Sporting Clube (17:00; LIVE on Ten Action), Shillong Lajong vs Mumbai FC (17:00)
Game of the round
Bengaluru FC vs Pune FC
One of the features of this season’s I-League has been the electrifying atmosphere of Bengaluru’s home matches. The average attendance has been consistently close to 8000, an impressive figure considering the rest of the league and there is never a dull moment on a matchday there as the fans engage in catchy chants throughout the game. All that has made the Bangalore Football Stadium a fortress for Bengaluru and so it’s not surprising to see that the majority of their points have come on home soil. With this being their last home assignment, Bengaluru would be eager to finish on a winning note and take another major step towards the title.
Coach Ashley Westwood might publicly stress on performance rather than results but having lead the table for so long, the entire squad would be determined to get their hands on the I-League trophy. Opponents Pune also have title aspirations and could take control of the race if they manage to record an away win. Mike Snoei’s side won the reverse fixture 1-0 earlier in the season and thus are looking to do the double. Although both clubs are relatively new in Indian football, there is plenty of healthy competition already both on and off the pitch. Their fanbases are still growing but there is already great banter so bragging rights will be at stake in this second-ever meeting.
Both coaches have identical selection problems as each side have their regular goalkeeper and centre-back unavailable due to suspension. They both also suffered losses in the last round but Pune’s form has been poor for a long period as the Red Lizards have only managed two wins from their last 11 I-League games. The visitors will also have one eye on their AFC Cup home fixture against Singapore’s Tampines Rovers on Tuesday but a victory over Bengaluru would be the best possible way to prepare for that game. There is not much to choose from the sides but Bengaluru will be looking to capitalise on home advantage one last time before three more away tests.
Players to watch out for
Foreigner: Edeh Chidi (East Bengal)
The Nigerian is one goal away from reaching the milestone of 100 in the combined history of the NFL and I-League so he would be aiming to get that personal landmark against his former club on Sunday and inspire East Bengal to maximum points.
Indian: Lenny Rodrigues (Churchill Brothers)
The India midfielder crucially set up the stoppage time winner against Pune FC last weekend and will have to give another strong performance against a Dempo side that likes to dominate possession and have been in good form recently.