ISL Final: Exclusive - 'Fortress' Kanteerava, Cuadrat's inspirational words, Patience kept us going all season, says Sunil Chhetri
"Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and I respect that but I don’t agree with this. Throughout the course of this season, we’ve had injuries to key players and despite this, we’ve managed to finish above all the other teams in the League," the talisman said.
Bengaluru only won two of their last seven league games, and there were question marks over the side's ability to come out on top in the playoffs, but here they are, with the final against FC Goa coming up on Sunday, in Mumbai. Chhetri, though, believes that there was no point of time when the staff or players really doubted themselves, pointing to the fact they give themselves the luxury to rest some key players in the later stages of the league phase.
"We lost Miku for a crucial period in the season, but managed to go into the break unbeaten and then after that, we took the chance and rested and rotated among ourselves to be in the best possible physical shape for the final and I believe that will help us."
Carles Cuadrat has instilled belief in all of us - Chhetri
At the start of the season, there were questions asked over the appointment of Carles Cuadrat to replace Albert Roca. Cuadrat was Roca's assistant, but had never been a head coach in his career, before. But Chhetri said that was never an issue, as the current head coach was the link between Roca and the players, even when he was the assistant manager.
"I think the mentality of the team and the belief in the philosophy that has been passed on has been key. Taking over from Albert Roca, Carles has done a great job and the boys have all worked hard to be where we are. We have been patient withour games and that’s how we have managed to stay at the top."
Chhetri also said it was brilliant for the squad to see Albert Roca in Bengaluru, when their former head coach came visiting to watch the second leg of their semifinal against NorthEast United.
"Mister Roca has a special place in the history of this club, so it was indeed lovely to see him again. In terms of philosophy and gameplay, they are from the same school of football so the mentality and the attitude that they have to the game is very similar and that’s why it has been a seamless transition from one to another," Chhetri said of Cuadrat taking over the reins.
Did the team ever doubt themselves, even when they missed so many chances in the second leg of the semifinal? "Not at all," the skipper says, "Of course, it was frustrating to miss so many chances, but we had to remain patient. Carles stressed on the need to be patient and keep playing our way of football and the goals would come. Thankfully, we managed to score," he says.
Is that belief from Cuadrat why Bengaluru have scored so many late goals to grab crucial points all through the season? Chhetri definitely believes so.
"Carles has always maintained that we have to stay calm. Even when things aren’t going our way, we have managed to be patient in our approach and that plays a very key part. Many of those goals that we scored late have come in games at the Fortress, at home, where we remained unbeaten through the season, and that goes down to the supporters who push us all the way until the final whistle. I must also say that every player who has come off the bench has played his part to perfection because they understand what is required of them in those crucial moments, which has been important."
I love Udanta Singh - Chhetri
After years of showing his obvious potential, Udanta Singh has finally lived up to the hype on the pitch. With five goals and three assists this season, the Manipuri winger has been huge in Bengaluru's attack, especially as he's stepped up in the absence of Miku, who was out with an ankle injury, missing eight games during the league phase.
"I love this kid," Chhetri says unabashedly, "He's got so much skill, so much talent, so much pace, now he's using all that to create chances for us to score."
Chhetri shouldn't be surprised by Udanta's improvement this season though. In every interview, he's stressed on how much talent the winger has. After Udanta's first goal of the season against Delhi Dynamos, the skipper went on to boldly claim that the world "would see a different Udanta" after that. How right he was!
"Even defensively, he’s improved massively this year and he covers huge distances in every game. He’s always tracking back to stop counters and to make crucial interceptions and I believe that’s the major difference that we can see in his game this year."
Chhetri also said it is crucial to the way Bengaluru play that he is on the same wavelength as Udanta and Miku.
"We all work together a lot in training, which plays a big part. Miku and I know how to move inside the box when Udanta has possession of the ball on the flank and he knows where we will be," Chhetri says of the partnership among the trio.
It's not too much different between him and Miku either, he says. "I know where he makes his runs, where he wants the ball. He knows the kind of runs I make, so we feed off each other. Everyone knows Miku’s quality, and that’s one of the main reasons we have been successful in attack," Chhetri said.
Wins against Goa count for little now - Chhetri
Bengaluru had beaten Goa twice in the league phase - a 2-1 win at Fatorda was followed by a 3-0 success, despite being a man down, at the Kanteerava Stadium. Does that give them a psychological edge ahead of the final. Chhetri scoffs at the very thought of it.
"Everyone knows that the final is a different game, and a different platform. Past records and results count for little when it comes to a final and the players are aware of that. The only thing that plays a part is that we know how they play and what we must focus on. Beating them twice gave us an advantage in the League phase in terms of our position on the table, but apart from that, I don’t think it means much anymore."
How do Bengaluru stop the league's top scorer, Ferran Corominas, then?
"It's there for all to see, how lethal he is. We need to deny him space, and it won't be just our defensive players. Everyone has to be contributing in the defensive side as well," Chhetri said.
Are Bengaluru still hurting from last year's final? The loss to Chennaiyin FC at home in the summit clash last year will not make a difference into the mentality that the team carries into the big dance this year in Mumbai, if their skipper is to be believed.
"We know the mistakes we made in that final and we’ll be making sure that those aren’t repeated. It was a tough moment and us, the players, and the fans know how badly we wanted the title. We will go out there and give our best, and that would be the case regardless of the result in last year’s final, so I don’t believe it plays a part."
Whether or not Bengaluru have last year's final in their mind, one thing is for sure. If they win the trophy this season, there will be no one to grudge them that. They've been the best team in the ISL over the last two seasons. Their skipper knows that, and he's itching to be the man to lift the trophy in Mumbai on Sunday.