Depth of squad was the key to BFC’s success

Through BFC’s victorious I-League title-run this season, coach Ashley Westwood has made several "chops and changes" to his playing XI. It is an efficient method used to ensure that even fringe members of the squad get adequate match-time.

The Bengaluru Football Club players practice under the watchful eyes of coach Ashley Westwood.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

At pre-match press conferences, football coaches are invariably asked if they have any injury concerns or suspensions to deal with. It is a fair question, given that the absence of even a single key player can significantly hurt the team’s chances on the pitch.

In the case of Bengaluru FC (BFC), the solution to these problems is two-pronged. The first is to follow a closely-monitored, scientific training programme to keep the body fit, and the second — perhaps harder to achieve — is to nurture a strong squad where replacements are ready and raring to go.

Through BFC’s victorious I-League title-run this season, coach Ashley Westwood has made — by his own admission — several “chops and changes” to his playing XI. This is not to say that the players have not earned Westwood’s trust. It is, in fact, an efficient method used to ensure that even fringe members of the squad get adequate match-time.

Keegan Pereira will vouch for this system. In early April, during the crucial final leg of the I-League, BFC faced East Bengal at home. The home side stood second on the points table — behind Mohun Bagan — while East Bengal lay third. Three points for BFC would have propelled them to the top — the outcome of this fixture could have well decided the fate of the championship.

There was, however, a major obstacle in the way for BFC to cross. Centre-back John Johnson, a rock solid presence in defence, was forced to sit out through a suspension. East Bengal’s prolific striker Ranti Martins would now need no second invitation to capitalise on Johnson’s absence.

In walked Pereira — primarily a left-back — to take Johnson’s spot. The 28-year-old Mumbaikar, who, like many of his team-mates, did not have a guaranteed presence in the line-up, did well to keep Martins and the other visiting forwards at bay. He did have a few nervy moments, but overall, he played his part in BFC’s 3-1 victory.

There were also the injuries to midfielders, Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Shankar Sampangiraj, to contend with. Lyngdoh, in particular, had been a cog as the playmaker. The 29-year-old was out for seven matches in the middle of the season, but BFC managed to stay within touching distance of the leaders in his absence. Malswamzuala, a talented but untested 18-year-old, showed admirable temperament as he stepped up to the plate.

Star striker and seasoned campaigner Sunil Chhetri explained that the depth of the squad was the key to success. “Not having Lyngdoh around for over a month was tough. He is the best performer in the team. But the good thing was that we stuck to the task, so when he came back, we were still in contention for the title. Everyone on the roster is ready and eager to make a mark.”

The India international is also quick to point out that unlike many other clubs, the JSW-owned team does not depend heavily on foreign imports to do the job. “In the AFC Cup match against Ayeyawady United in Bengaluru, Westwood started with 11 Indian footballers. People were shocked, but he believed in his players. Nobody was nervous because these guys were confident of doing well. We won 5-3, and don’t forget, it was an important match. If we had lost, we were out of the tournament.”

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