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Major talking points from the I-league

The past week was devoid of too many goals for the I-league outfits. But this, by no standards, means that there was any lack of action. Bengaluru FC ...

The past week was devoid of too many goals for the I-league outfits. But this, by no standards, means that there was any lack of action. Bengaluru FC put up a heroic show in their first ever Asian outing while Pune FC slumped to their first defeat of the season after a serious goal-scoring run in their previous three fixtures. Here, we look at more such talking points from the past round of matches across the I-league and beyond.

Bengaluru FC victims of AFCCL’s flawed format

Home to the world’s most watched annual sporting event and the parent union of the past three world champion FA’s, UEFA is without doubt the strongest confederation in the world. Along with setting benchmarks in terms of business models and garnering future talents, the current structure of this administrative body’s top league has also been one of its most exemplary feats.

Thus it came in with very little surprise when, since the 2009 edition of its premier continental competition, the Asian Football Confederation also implemented a similar format to that of the current UEFA Champions League, with 32 top teams from across its member countries challenging for the top spot in the confederation; the only tweak in this double round-robin adaptation being the maintenance of separate East Asian and West Asian groups in order to ‘reduce travelling costs.

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Bengaluru FC narrowly lost 2-1 to Johor Darul Ta’zim

The group stage, as it stands today, is preceded by three rounds of qualifying fixtures (preliminary round 1, preliminary round 2, and a play-off round). It was for the first time since the 2011 edition that India’s domestic champions were chancing their luck in the competition after two years of unfulfilled criteria restrictions and one year of club license requirement issues. Hence, riding on the back of an inspired debut campaign, when the Indian champions Bengaluru FC presented the Indian challenge at the continental stage this season, the fans back home had high hopes as they clashed with Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta’zim last week.

The men in blue produced a remarkable performance away from home, in front of 17,000 vociferous fans, throughout the first half and were unlucky to be denied the opener when John Johnson’s header bounced off the woodwork. But it was the home side that broke the deadlock two minutes into the second half as Hariss Harun was on the end of a delightful Nazrin Nawi cross to send the Larkin Stadium in frenzy.

After a competitive remainder of the second half, the outcome looked certain to end up in the favour of the hosts. But it was not to be. In stoppage time, Eugeneson Lyngdoh floated a ball in from the corner flag which eluded everyone and crashed into the back of the net. What followed was a stunning silence as the regulation time ended 1-1.

Now, if an average UCL viewer was to watch this result, they would expect the final outcome of the tie to be decided in the next leg. But here is when you realise one of the biggest problem areas with the format of these qualifying matches. They are one-off affairs which are hosted by the club from the higher ranked association. Thus, this match too was pushed into extra time and debutant S Chanturu restored the lead for his team eight minutes into the first period and it eventually proved enough to send the Indian club packing.

Ideally, BFC should have returned home with an away goal and a head start into the home leg of a crucial fixture for their first continental campaign. Looking at the growing popularity of football over the recent past in India, large numbers at the Kanteerava Stadium in the second leg would not have been a surprise. It would also have given impetus to the AFCCL in a country which is beginning to take its football seriously.

But with the current format, the bottom-line is that Ashley Westwood’s men have been dumped out of the tournament despite a valiant show. And until the second leg is introduced, full justice will never be done to teams like BFC who represent the future of their country’s football.

Pune’s defensive woes persist

Having rescued a point against one of his former teams on the opening day, the fortunes of Karim Bencherifa’s Pune FC took an enthralling turn as his team smashed 11 goals in the next three fixtures, en route to the top of the table. But, had it not been for this handsome return in front of goal, the Red Lizards would have been found wanting as their defence cut a desolate figure during most of these 270 minutes.

And it reflected in the weekend’s 1-0 loss for the men in red against another one of Bencherifa’s old teams, Mohun Bagan at the Salt Lake Stadium – their first of the season – as the back-line was unable to spare the blushes for PFC on an off day for the strikers. Pritam Kotal rose tall for the home team in the 77th minute to collect all the three points on offer as the Mariners ascended to fourth on the table with two games in hand.

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The visitors had their hearts in their mouths when they thought they conceded in the 18th minute only for the goal from Sony Norde’s wonderful cross to be disallowed for a handball. But the worrying sign for Bencherifa from this move was the early indication of his defense’s inability to deal with crosses. The backline once again came under pressure in the 31st minute as Jeje’s shot was blocked by defender Luciano Sabrosa after he was released by Denson.

On the other end, the Pune FC frontline wasted a glorious opportunity to get on the scoresheet with a five-on-three situation. Marcelino failed to find a team-mate inside the box and the chance went begging.

After a largely ineffective first half, the first hat-trick scorer of the season T Haokip was replaced by Anthony D’Souza, but it made no difference to the leaders’ movement in the attacking third. In fact more action was taking place on the other side of the pitch as Pritam ran riot on four defensive players but had to pay for his selfishness when he was barricaded by Sarbosa.

Despite several such lapses, the Pune defense seemed to have weathered the storm towards the closing stages of the game. But the hosts had other ideas. Haitian Norde was in the thick of things once again as he found acres of space on the left in the 77th minute. He again ballooned one right into the box as the ball eluded all the Pune defenders on the near post and found its way to Pritam, who nodded past an unguarded goal to draw first blood.

The final score remained the same and does not fully speak about the lacklustre show from the Pune backline. Had the Mariners been more clinical in the final 10 minutes of the game, the gulf could have been far more daunting for the Maharashtra team.

Though PFC are still at the top of the table, they now fashion the third worst defensive record in the league this season with seven goals conceded from five games, as per soccerway.com. There will be some odd days even further in the season for the Red Lizards when their strikers will be off the mark. But on these occasions, the defense will have to stand up in order to maintain the current position that they are in. However, after the past three or four of their defensive performances, it looks like a long way to go for Bencherifa’s back-line from here.

Maharashtra duo still winless

When debutants Bharat FC faced a slightly jaded Bengaluru FC outfit this weekend, they were looking to seek inspiration from their opponents who had taken the league by storm last season, which was also their maiden campaign. The fact that the midweek AFCCL qualifier would have added to the fatigue levels in the camp of the defending champions was also an advantage for the visitors.

But the men in blue were quick to shrug off any signs of weariness to sneak past the newbies of the league 1-0 at home. Eugeneson Lyngdoh continued his form in front of goal for his new club to score the lone goal in the match and notch up his sixth in as many matches following the one in the Asian qualifiers.

At this stage last season, BFC, in their first I-league spell, had collected seven out of the nine possible points after three games; scoring five goals and conceding just once in the process. In contrast, the debutants of this season, Bharat FC are winless three games into the season despite conceding just two goals. However, their record in front of goal has been the area of concern as they have been able to beat the opposition keepers just twice so far, an average of less than one goal per game.

Speaking of poor goal-scoring records, Bharat FC’s neighbours from a couple hundred miles away — Mumbai FC — also failed to score this weekend in a goalless draw against Sporting Clube de Goa at home. This result keeps their position intact right at the foot of the table with one point from four games. According to soccerway.com, they have scored just three goals in their opening quartet of matches and have the second worst record in the league to show for their defensive displays.

However they might consider themselves unfortunate to have not won this one. But they have no one else to blame for their profligacy as they had three clear chances to score inside the first 20 minutes after the first whistle. The Goa club was happy to sit back and soak all the pressure that was being applied at them by the hosts. They sure would be the happier of the two teams to have shared points from this fixture.

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