Pre-season rescheduling and cramped fixtures led to a busy past week or so for certain I-league outfits. After the opening match day of the season, games have been flying in thick and fast throughout the length and breadth of the country. And with so much action on the field, there was plenty to talk about, as expected. Here, we look at some key talking points from the recent rounds of matches…
Changes help BFC find groove in new formation, just in time.
On the back of a busy pre-season and taking the undefeated road to victory in the latest edition of the Federation Cup, defending champions Bengaluru FC endured a nightmarish start. After sharing the spoils with Dempo on the opening day and then suffering disappointing losses to Pune FC and East Bengal, Ashley Westwood’s men were scheduled to stand up to the challenge from the newly promoted Royal Wahingdoh, a team that had strung together a hat trick of wins in its first three outings in the premier division of Indian football.
Much had been talked about the change in the Blues’ formation from last season’s 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2. Some claimed it had reduced the fluidity in the team’s play while some even went to the extent of christening it as the beginning of a disaster for the double winners. However, the ex-Man United man was confident of his tactics and his players’ ability to adapt to his new style while speaking in the build up to the match.
With a little bit of assistance from the woodwork, some good wide play and moments of individual brilliance, the Karnataka men registered their first win of the season and how! Their 4-0 marauding of the home team ended the I-league second division winners’ dream start to their first top-tier campaign.
BFC had a spring in their stride since the kick-off. Sean Rooney was put through on goal in as early as the sixth minute but Wahingdoh keeper Bernard was quick to claim the ball. The home team responded well in these opening exchanges but it was ultimately the men in blue who drew first blood. CK Vineeth, who replaced a misfiring Robin Singh from the previous match, repaid the faith shown by the manager after timing his jump perfectly to a Rino Anto cross, in the 34th minute.
The newcomers matched the champions in terms of creating chances throughout the first 45 but had nothing to show for it on the half-time whistle. And, they were made to pay for it after play resumed. More adventurous of the two sides, BFC marched forward around the hour mark to double the lead through local boy Eugene Lyngdoh.
All the debate surrounding the gaffer’s change in system was then put to bed when another one of his changes from the previous match put the result beyond any doubt in the last half hour of the game. The 24-year-old Thoi Singh, who was given the nod ahead of Beikhokhei Beingaichho, first finished from a close range and then made a sparkling run from the half-line for his second to seal a much-needed win.
Although the attackers found their groove, BFC were lucky to get away with a clean sheet as the Wahingdoh frontline, led by the Korean Kim Yong Song, hit the upright on a couple occasions.
The men in blue next embark on their first ever journey in Asian football and will face Malaysian Super League winners Johur Darul Ta’zim away on February 4 in the AFC Champions League qualifiers. Thus this handsome win comes in at just the right time for India’s top team. Keeping up the same sort of momentum and with some added robustness in the backline, BFC are sure to present a formidable challenge for their continental opponents in the upcoming midweek fixture.
Same state, contrasting fate.
Tagged as the ‘Maha derby,’ one of the last fixtures of this round had its impact on both ends of the table. After defeating Mumbai FC 3-2 in a thrilling encounter at home, Pune FC ascended to the Numero Uno spot with three wins and a draw from four matches while the team from around 200 km away lies at the foot of the table, bereft of even a single point from their opening three games.
More than anything else, the manner in which these two outfits have managed to find themselves in their current positions has been quite remarkable. Talking first about the Red Lizards, their rise to the top of the charts has coincided with a prolific record of their attackers in front of goal. After their fourth match, they have now beaten the opposition keepers as many as 12 times in the competition so far; one more in number than defending champions Bengaluru FC and previous holders Salgaocar and Dempo combined at this stage, as per soccerway.com.
Apart from the glut of chances created by their midfielders, much of the credit for this three-goals-per-game average goes to the PFC attackers, currently being led by Thongkhosiem Haokip. The 21-year-old Indian has already notched up four goals in as many games so far, including a treble against his team’s 5-2 mauling of Shillong Lajong, to equal his tally from last season.
Heading the list of the league’s goal-scorers, Haokip is being closely followed by teammate Darko Nikač. The Montenegro man struck in the 30th minute against the men from Mumbai to double his team’s lead and added a third to his kitty which already included crucial strikes against Bengaluru FC and Shillong Lajong. The 24-year-old has taken no time to settle into the I-league after Karim Bencherefa acquired his services from FK Grbalj before the start of the season, and his goal-scoring prowess is surely something to look forward to for the rest of the season.
Adding the Brazilian Luciano Sabrosa, veteran Japan international Ryuji Sueoka and Adrian D’Souza to this list, Pune already boast of five goal scorers this season. The Pune faithful will be hoping that their defense, which has leaked half-a-dozen goals so far, is able to match up to the level of their attackers in order to keep the hopes of a first title for the men in red alive.
On the other hand, Khalid Jamil’s players, who tested their rivals in the closing stages of the game, still appeared unsettled as a team. After making five changes from their last encounter, the Mumbaikars have now tried around two dozen players in their starting line-up within the space of just three games. Having the second worst defensive record in the league so far, MFC have conceded seven goals which demonstrates the lack of co-ordination in their back line along with the dearth of goals on the other side of the pitch.
However, it is still too early in the campaign and it hardly takes a couple of good games to change things at this stage of the season. With the sort of quality in their ranks, better performances could not be too far away from Mumbai, once their players start gelling together.
Sporting’s wretched derby run.
What hurts more than a derby loss is another one that follows it. And in the past rounds of matches, it was the turn of Sporting Clube de Goa’s fans to suffer twin heartbreaks after back-to-back losses against two local rivals, within the space of six days.
Managing a draw in their opening fixture against East Bengal, the green and white stripes were handed their first setback in the form of a 3-0 demolition against Dempo SC. Lenny Rodrigues, Alwyn George and Francis Fernandes were on the scoresheet for the Golden Eagles to thoroughly outplay their opponents.
It is worth mentioning here that this was the 23rd occasion on which these two sides went head to head and Sporting’s overall record against Dempo continued to speak of a one-sided story. Dempo have now won 15 of these encounters while the Margao-club has managed to take home three points from just six. The teams have shared points twice.
The second of the successive derbies for Sporting featured their rather favoured opponents in the form of Salgaocar SC, against who they boast of a formidable record. In their previous 16 meetings, the green and whites had emerged victorious in nine drawing four and losing on just three occasions.
Despite this glorious past against the Greens, Sporting succumbed to a 2-0 home loss in the latest replay of this fixture, as a result of Bikash Jairu’s opener and an own goal. Out of their four total losses against Salgaocar, three have now come in front of their own fans; something that they would want to rectify sooner rather than later.
After this forgettable past week, Sporting now hang in the relegation zone with just the lone point from their first three games. Manager Mateus Costa will be doing all he can to turn his team’s fortunes in the coming weeks and will quietly be thanking his stars that there are no more derbies in the near future to deal with.