Play-off qualifiers battle for top spot

With play-offs qualification confirmed for both Bengaluru FC and FC Goa, both teams will be looking to gather momentum heading into the business end of the season.

Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri in action against FC Goa in the reverse fixture.   -  ISL SPORTZPICS

There is seldom a dull moment when Bengaluru FC and FC Goa meet. The three matches between the teams in the Indian Super League have produced 12 goals, a reflection of the possession-based high-pressing game that coaches on both sides have favoured. The stakes are rather low for Thursday's encounter at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru, with both teams having qualified for the play-offs already, but there will likely be no shortage of entertainment.

BFC goes into this fixture having suffered a surprising dip in form. The team has lost two games on the bounce, with only one point claimed from the last three matches, which has allowed Goa to climb to the top of the table.

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On Monday, BFC contrived to lose in Delhi, having led with 14 minutes left on the clock. "It can be a lesson for us," said head coach Carles Cuadrat. "Maybe these two remaining league games are a good chance to [rectify those mistakes]."

Cuadrat has rotated his side over the last two weeks, resting Sunil Chhetri, Udanta Singh, Albert Serran and Dimas Delgado for varying periods. There will be more of the same on Thursday, with Serran sure to sit out as he is serving a suspension. One player BFC will be without for the rest of the season, however, is central midfielder Erik Paartalu, who injured his knee while in action against Chennaiyin.

"It's a massive loss," said Cuadrat. "[Against Delhi,] we suffered a lot without that kind of physical player. Dimas, Xisco and Luisma are very talented but they don't have Erik's strength. The rules let us sign a replacement so we're looking for a player for that position on the pitch."

For Goa head coach Sergio Lobera, this has been a satisfying campaign. Last season, his side’s fluid, attacking play came at the cost of some porous defending. The team had troubles earlier this season too, but since the winter break, a defensive solidity has underpinned Goa's football.

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The team has kept five clean sheets in a row, and has the best attacking (35 goals) and joint-best defensive (17) record in the league.

"We're defending collectively, pressing high up the pitch and recovering the ball close to the opposition's box," said Lobera. "The whole team is involved. We've improved a lot; it makes me very happy."

Victory for either team will give it a three-point lead at the head of the table, but both Lobera and Cuadrat stated that it meant little to them; their focus is already on the road ahead.