Sunil Chhetri initially resisted the urge to celebrate his goal which sealed the points for Bengaluru FC against Mumbai FC, a club which bought him at the 2015 auction. However, after his teammates who had mobbed him drew away to restart play, he could not resist raising his arms towards the BFC faithful who revere him. He might have wanted to show respect towards his former club, but there was no doubting that his heart beats for BFC, a club he has played for since its inception in 2013.
Having been part of professional setups at Kansas City Wizards and Sporting Clube De Portugal B, he was well placed to appreciate the template that BFC sought to draw their footballing plans from. The club has been credited with introducing well thought out processes at every level of its operations well before any one else in India, which is why it was always going to be a case of when rather than if they would join the ISL.
They made their debut on Sunday and more than looked the part. The more time a coach has with his team before a season starts, the better, and Albert Roca has benefitted from BFC’s extended run in the AFC Cup. In an opening weekend in which only NorthEast United from the established ISL order impressed, BFC laid down an early marker in the title race with a performance which ensured that they hit the ground running.
Under former Barcelona assistant coach, Roca, there is a strong Spanish influence in this team. He has brought in players with La Liga and Segunda Division experience into the squad, and their influence permeates into the team’s style of play. A 4-3-3 formation saw Chhetri and Udanta Singh slot in alongside former Valencia, Getafe and Rayo Vallecano frontman, Miku. Edu Garcia and Lenny Rodrigues pulled the strings in midfield with Erik Paartalu initiating play. Roca would call upon the services of Toni Dovale, who played under Luis Enrique at Celta Vigo, when BFC were chasing the game in the second half.
The full backs, Harmanjot Khabra and Rahul Bheke, bought at the auction in July, provided the width in attack. John Johnson partnered Juanan Gonzalez in defence with India international, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in goal.
The identity was clear for everyone to see, and BFC enjoyed 56% of possession, while stringing together 447 passes. Add to that 9 corners and 16 shots on goal, the story of the game was of sustained dominance over Mumbai FC, who are looking to build on their semifinal appearance last year. The fact that Mumbai started this match with one of the strongest defences from last season, with goalkeeper Amrinder Singh and defenders Gerson Viera and Lucian Goian retained in this year’s squad, made this performance even more creditable.
The story of the ISL over the first three seasons has been mostly of resolute defending with a lack of quality in midfield and forward positions. Teams have not been able to consistently take control in the middle of the park which has resulted in constant ball turnover, which does not make for great viewing. BFC will bring some quality to these areas, and in Sunil Chhetri, they have a forward who will take chances that most others in the league will spurn. His goal, which sealed the 2-0 triumph, might have resulted from a defensive mix up, but there was acumen to be witnessed rarely seen in Indian marksmen. By lifting the ball where others would have tried stroking the ball along the ground, he accounted for the outstretched foot of the defender, Mehrajuddin Wadoo. It might not seem to be an important enough factor, but these are the moments that can make or break a season.
Bengaluru FC made history in 2014 by winning the I-League in its debut season. On this performance, few would be betting against them repeating that feat in the ISL.