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ISL 2018-19: Watch out Asia, we're back - Sunil Chhetri after Bengaluru FC's ISL Final victory

EXPERT COLUMNIST
Feature
Timeless

Bengaluru FC's Sunil Chhetri with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu after their ISL victory
Bengaluru FC's Sunil Chhetri with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu after their ISL victory

Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri sent out a warning to fellow Asian clubs after the Indian Super League (ISL) victory over FC Goa guaranteed the Blues a spot in the AFC Cup.

Bengaluru needed an extra-time winner from Rahul Bheke to bag their sixth title in six years of existence.

However, Bengaluru have set sights on a grander prize - the AFC Cup.

Bengaluru reached the final of the AFC Cup in 2016 and remain the only Indian side to go that far in Asia's equivalent of the Europa League. 

That ended in disappointment as Bengaluru lost by a solitary goal to Air Force Club of Iraq at the final in Doha, Qatar. Next time though, Chhetri wants Bengaluru to compete and triumph in the AFC Cup.

When asked where he would rate the ISL victory, Chhetri said: "Right at the top. It's the second most important victory.

"Probably, the first one was the Doha AFC Cup final against Air Force Club. This (the ISL Final) has happened now. It's fresh so I feel really wonderful. This is something we lost last year.

"But even when I was asked in the interviews last year, I had said we'll come back. That day, we didn't speak about it but we knew that one day we will do that and achieve this. 

"All the planning, the rest and the rehabilitation of the injured players - it all led to this moment. it's not easy. This is sweet. 

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"And you know what, Asia? We're back."

Competing in Asia is close to Chhetri's heart. Bengaluru will not play in the AFC Cup this season as the slot went to the ISL 2017-18 champions Chennaiyin FC. It prompted Chhetri to put out a video on Twitter last November, asking the AIFF to grant the ISL table-toppers a spot in the Asian competition instead of the ISL champions.

This time though, Bengaluru need not worry as they finished on top of the table and also clinched the ISL trophy.

"I am happy because the consistency of the player has been finally rewarded," Bengaluru FC coach Carles Cuadrat commented. "He has been the winner in the league stage for the last 3 seasons. It shows that week after week, he has been doing good. Finally I am happy he got the title he truly deserves."

Bengaluru FC come a full circle in an ISL final

Bengaluru endured disappointment at the hands of Chennaiyin FC on March 17, 2018. However, just a year later, they climbed back on top and seized the title that was theirs.

It seems like life has come a full circle for Bengaluru, who conceded through 2 set-pieces against Chennaiyin FC last year and ended up scoring off a corner themselves on Sunday.

Chhetri explained that a lot of work goes behind the set-piece situations that Bengaluru draw out.

"It feels good now. It wasn't meant to be because we had to work hard. We hadn't conceded a single goal from set-pieces this season - only against Jamshedpur in our final league game. Apart from that, maybe three penalties. 

"We really have worked hard there. There are charts in the bathroom before we go to the match and it takes 20 minutes to memorise those. Every free-kick and corner has its own sign and sometimes I forget. I even asked Juanan and even he didn't know. I had to understand it from a third player.

"We work on set pieces alone for one and a half days. The coach has told us that 5 out of every 10 goals come from set pieces. 
"Last year, losing the final the way we did, it is fitting that we won by scoring from a set-piece."

Sunil Chhetri with Bengaluru coach Carles Cuadrat
Sunil Chhetri with Bengaluru coach Carles Cuadrat

Sunil Chhetri coy on ISL restructuring

Soon after the ISL Final, the Bengaluru skipper was asked about the proposed merger of the ISL and I-League. According to reports, the ISL would get the top division status with the I-League being rebranded as a second division.

However, Chhetri refused to be drawn into the debate, saying: "If I had any knowledge about what would happen, I would tell you.

"I hope all the teams get to win in the best way they can play. I would sound silly if I told you anything without the knowledge of what's happening."
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