With the clock showing 77 minutes at the Rasmee Dhandu Stadium in Mal , substitute Sean Rooney saw an unmarked Udanta Singh and found him with a ball from his own half. The 20 year old TFA graduate ran down the right flank and found skipper Sunil Chhetri with delightful chip over the Maziya defenders. The Bengaluru and Indian skipper unleashed a volley past goalkeeper Imran to stun the home crowd and complete a memorable 2-1 win over the Indian champions. The gritty win ensured a place in the last 16 for the JSW backed side in their maiden continental appearance with a game to spare. The win in a lot of ways characterized Bengaluru’ s season so far as the Men of Steel have found the going a lot tougher in their second season as compared to the last season when they romped past most of the I League teams comfortably. But the Ashley Westwwod and Pradyum Reddy coached side have shown remarkable grit and determination which has carried them through testing times.
The season began on a slow note for the club from the IT City as they were eliminated from the Durand Cup in the semifinals and looked tenacious in their first two matches in the Federation Cup. But the I League champions rode on six goals from Sunil Chhetri to clinch the title beating Sporting Club 3-0 in the semifinals and Dempo 2-1 in the finals. The beginning was slow even in the I League as Bengaluru managed to gain just a point from the first three matches even losing 3-1 to Pune at their home ground but since then Bengaluru have not only impressed in the AFC Cup but have also done well in the I League. The team won 9 of their next 13 matches in the I League and are now in the second position behind the Mariners, waiting to capitalize on any slip ups by the Kolkata giants.
One of the major strengths for Bengaluru this season has been their non reliance on any single individual. Starting off from the striking department, out of the 42 goals that Bengaluru scored in I League last season, 24 were scored by the duo of Sean Rooney and Sunil Chhetri but the duo this season has contributed only five goals so far in the 16 matches. While Chhetri began the season on a tremendous note scoring 6 goals in the Federation Cup, he failed to replicate his form in the I League and it took him seven games to score his first goal in the I League and then another nine to score his second. CK Vineeth however has come to Bengaluru’ s rescue and the Keralite has cemented his place in the team as the center forward at the expense of the likes of Robin Singh and Sean Rooney. Vineeth has scored three goals in the I League so far and has impressed Westwood with his work-rate and tireless running. Signed on loan from United SC in the middle of last season, Vineeth has had to wait for his chances and finally seemed to have found a permanent place in the team. The same holds true for Udanta Singh – the pacy TFA striker was groomed with Westwood and was only introduced in the second half of the season. The 20 year old has already impressed in the I League and the opposition defenders have found it hard to close him down. Other than Vineeth, Robin Singh has chipped in with four goals so far.
At the start of the season, few would have placed their bet on Eugeneson Lyngdoh as the most important signing of the transfer season. But the new Mr. consistent of Indian Football has been the heart and soul of the Bengaluru FC team this season. Eugeneson has started all of the sixteen matches that Bengaluru have played this season and is their top scorer in the I League with five goals far. Eugeneson, who studied in Bengaluru, operates primarily as a play maker and links well with the three strikers upfront that Bengaluru FC deploy in a 4-3-3 formation. Blessed with a solid work-rate and an eye for finding out his team mates with defense splitting passes, Eugeneson is also the dead ball specialist for his team and has notched up countless assists with his corners and free-kicks. Eugeneson also falls back to help his team in defense and has made sure that his team has not missed Johnny Menyongar who was released at the start of the season. Such has been his importance to the club, that Eugeneson has started all the sixteen matches so far and his consistency has earned him a spot in the national team.
Former U-21 England captain, Josh Walker has settled well in the team after struggling to find his footing in the Indian conditions and while Eugeneson has preferred to play an attacking role, Walker has played primarily as a defensive midfielder. Walker often plays as a defensive screen in front of the back four and almost forms a three man defense with Johnson and Osano when Anto and Mawia/Pereira move ahead from onn the right and left flank. 20 year old lanky midfielder Shankar Sampingiraj has been another find of the season for the Garden City club and the lanky midfielder has cemented his place in the team with some crucial goals this season both in I League and AFC Cup with his goal against Royal Wahingdoh the most notable one. Shankar also made his debut for the U-23 team in the AFC U-23 qualifiers in March. 24 year old Thoi Singh has carried on his impressive form from last season and has four goals to his name in the I League so far. Both Thoi and Shankar are knocking on the national team door with their impressive performances.
Defensively John Johnson and Curtis Osano form a commanding central defensive pairing and other than Eugeneson, the duo have consistently featured in the Blues’ starting lineups. Right back Rino Anto has put in impressive performances whenever he has started. Anto has not only been solid in defense but has provided support in the attack with his runs down the flank. The 28 year old Kerala native has several assists to his name and his importance to the team can be gauged by the fact that he is the stand in skipper whenever Chhetri is not playing. The full backs have an important role in the way Bengaluru play and on the left flank as well Keegan Pereira and Lalchhuan Mawia have done an admirable job. All three of Anto, Pereira and Mawia have staked their claim for a national team spot. When it comes to utilizing the full backs, Bengaluru are the best club in India.
A lot of credit for Bengaluru’s success must go to coach Ashley Westwood who has handled his resources well and has rotated his squad admirably which has seen the club perform well despite a cramped schedule of Federation Cup, AFC Cup and I League which has seen a lot of clubs suffer due to injuries. Westwood has not been afraid to drop the big name players to the bench proved by the fact that he kept Sunil Chhetri on bench for two I League games as the all time top Indian goal scorer was struggling to score goals. The move paid rich dividends as Chhetri has now scored thrice in the last two matches. Westwood’ s handling of Vineeth, Udanta and Shankar is also applaud-able as gave them enough time to get in tune with the club’ s philosophy before introducing them in the starting lineups. With just a point separating Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC and with qualification for AFC Cup already secured, Bengaluru FC are primed for a late surge in the I League and could well go on to secure their second I League crown.