The banner screaming ‘Lead Us Carles’ painted in massive blue letters was dutifully unfurled at every Bengaluru FC home game this season. Carles Cuadrat was handed the mantle last year after Albert Roca’s departure and had an imposing task on hand — every former Bengaluru manager had won at least one title a year and Cuadrat had to keep the streak going.
Bengaluru finished on top of the league stage, much like last year, scripting a memorable comeback win over NorthEast United FC and stormed into its second successive Indian Super League final.
A stern test awaited Bengaluru as it was pitted against the rampaging FC Goa, and in Cuadrat’s path stood his compadre, Sergio Lobera. The two of them have known each other for close to 20 years now, having cut their teeth at FC Barcelona.
Having emerged from the same school of learning, it is no surprise that both managers have a similar coaching philosophy. But Cuadrat had to slightly alter his style to counter the ferocious Goan attack. A tiki-taka based defensive approach would have seemed the obvious option to keep the Goans in check, but Cuadrat wanted his boys to go for the kill — as confirmed by skipper Sunil Chhetri post the game. The ploy could have easily backfired and Goa could have soared in another glittering goal-fest, but it was not to be.
Bengaluru’s backline stood strong and the game between the league’s two highest-scoring teams was late into extra-time when Rahul Bheke stormed into the box and nodded in Dimas Delgado’s corner. Bheke, a central defender on the night, is not a name you often see on the scoresheet, but he had the confidence to pull off the miracle because of the faith Cuadrat has in his boys. Bheke was the only Mumbaikar on the pitch and that he would score the winning goal just seemed fitting.
“I am the coach of Bengaluru because they think I can do things the right way. When (Albert) Roca left due to family issues, the players told the management that Carlos can do the job. From the first day, I have changed a few things from what we did last season and believed in our plan. I have been demanding a lot from the players. Maybe in the Super Cup, they may say no more! (laughs) ,” remarked Cuadrat post the final. With one trophy in the bag and the Super Cup just around the corner, Cuadrat now has the chance of becoming the first manager to win two titles in the same season for Bengaluru.
Corominas’ Bengaluru jinx continues
Ferran Corominas has been one of the most successful imports in the ISL. In two seasons, the former Espanyol striker has scored a staggering 34 goals in 40 matches, 16 of those coming this season. While he had eased his way past the eight other teams in the league, he was simply unable to score against Bengaluru this season. And that came to hurt Goa in the final. In fact, Corominas had scored a hat-trick when the sides first met last season, but he hasn’t scored since and Goa hasn’t won in the four ties that followed.
Wooden spoon for Chennaiyin
While Bengaluru and Goa, along with NorthEast United FC, were the top clubs this season, last year’s champion Chennaiyin FC struggled to remain relevant. The two-time champion finished with the wooden spoon, managing to win all of two games. From the high of winning the league last year to claiming an unwanted record of the lowest points won in an ISL edition (9), the oscillation is stark.
Chennaiyin managed to retain the core from last season’s triumph, including the Brazilian duo of Mailson Alves and Raphael Augusto, but was unable to replicate the success on the pitch. The side failed collectively and there was little to talk about. Coach John Gregory cut a sorry figure towards the latter stages of the league and when asked what he would have done differently, he simply quipped, “everything.” The Englishman, though, won’t be around for long as his contract runs out this year and he has no plans of extending his stay.
Lack of attendance a worrying factor
Lobera had praised the league and its functioning after the final, but the ISL was found wanting in terms of attendance figures this season. Despite an eventful season that saw many exciting players such as Michael Soosairaj and Sahal Abdul Samad storm into the limelight and the arrival of global icons such as Tim Cahill, the in-stadia attendance during the league stage dipped by 19.4 percent, a fall of close to 2.5 lakh.
The organisers, on their part, had campaigns such as ‘Fan Banna Padega,’ but it did not translate to increased numbers. Bengaluru’s arrival to the ISL gave the league a massive boost in terms of numbers, and perhaps, if the Kolkata clubs — East Bengal and Mohun Bagan — do indeed join the league next year, we can expect an upswing in attendance.
While a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the structure of the upcoming Indian football season, Bengaluru’s triumph stresses on the point that I-League clubs are no lesser than their ISL counterparts. To pocket the title, finish on top of the league stage, and make it to two finals in its first two seasons shows the side’s tenacity and gives hope, that if I-League clubs do join the ISL, it’s going to be one helluva contest.
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