Continued from part 1….

Bengaluru FC
(P9 W4 D2 L3)

Riding on heroics from their debut season, a pre-season in the pink away from ISL and their Federation Cup triumph in January, BFC were expected to pick up from where they had left off last year. On the contrary, they suffered a disappointing start to their second campaign in India’s top-tier football. But, after collecting just one point from their first three games, the Blues bounced back with 13 from their next half-a-dozen; jumping to third in the table. They are also beginning to show glimpses of the brand of football out of which Ashley Westwood earned a name for himself as a coach; and with the rise of some new faces in the team, BFC don’t look like they are going to let go of their title so easily.


Players to watch out for: Citing various reasons including the added workload of continental football, Westwood has often tweaked his formation this season. Though the goals from skipper Sunil Chhetri, who notched up 15 last season, might have dried up as a result, but the gaffer seems to have found a new source to burst the net. Signed in July last year, Eugeneson Lyngdoh has been the story of the season for BFC so far. The 28-year-old former Shillong Lajong and Rangdajied United midfielder has already netted four goals in nine league appearances for his new club. Notably, without two of his goals, his team would have gathered four points lesser than their current tally. The attacking midfielder has also been a key cog in the journey of the Blues in Asia so far, and has also turned provider on several occasions.

Much younger than Eugene, another player who has come into his own this season is the industrious Shankar Sampangiraj. Boasting the ability to play in a variety of positions, the 19-year-old has come through a tough phase affected by a serious knee injury and is now finding his feet at the club. The gaffer himself showered praise on the teenager after the club’s memorable 2-0 win over Shillong Lajong, despite playing with 10 men for more than half of the game, in which he played as a right-back. Westwood said, “We knew Shankar was a good player when he came, he was unfortunate last season. He can play right back, which you’ve obviously seen today. He can play centre-half, if he learns and listens, and he can also play a midfielder, he could be one of our midfielders. He’s a very versatile midfielder and he’s a decent player. He’s got lots to learn, but he’s got some good attributes; he’s really quick, he’s athletic, composed on the ball, he can play one touch if he needs to and he’s got a competitive edge to him too.”

Weaknesses: Not in the domestic league, but BFC were exposed with their long-ball tactics earlier this week in the AFC Cup tie against Persipura Jayapura, which they lost 3-1. They started the game with a 4-3-3 formation, but with many key players either injured or out on national duty, the team lacked quality for this sort of approach.

The team has also played an alternative 4-4-2 formation during the early stages of the season, with lukewarm success. But the point to be noted here is that a sense of uncertainty can be observed from some of Westwood’s methods; the results in the form of daunting losses against Mohun Bagan and Pune FC speak for themselves. Though his team has looked prolific in some areas this season, the former Manchester United-man should try to stick to the tactics that earned his team the title last season. Too much of experimentation can sometimes spoil a dish despite all the right ingredients.

Prediction: After nine matches last season, BFC had collected just one more point than they have at the same juncture in the current campaign. They went on to win 10 of their next 15 games in the previous edition of the I-league and there is no reason why they can’t repeat or even do better this time around; given the abundance of talent in their ranks. They should finish at least in the top two if not lift the trophy again.

Pune FC
(P8 W4 D3 L1)

With just one defeat from their opening octet of fixtures, Pune FC has performed beyond expectations this season following a seventh-position finish last season. With the joint best offensive record in the season so far, the Red Lizards have looked particularly sharp in front of goal and have let the floodgates open even against the top teams. February was a tough month for the Maharashtra outfit as they went winless in three games on the back of some unfortunate injuries. But a timely 1-0 home win against Royal Wahingdoh sent the men in red into the break on a high.


Players to watch out for: Laying footprints of a bright future for India’s football, Pune FC Academy graduate Thongkhosiem Haokip has been a livewire on the field in the red jersey this season. The Manipur-born lad has found the net six times this season; including the first hat-trick of the season against Shillong Lajong, crucial strikes against Royal Wahingdoh and defending champions Benaluru FC. It came in with little surprise when he was called up for the Under-23 National team camp taking place in Goa ahead of the AFC U23 Championship Qualifiers in Dhaka.

Complementing the Indian attacker in his exploits is the 24-year-old Montenegrin marquee signing for the Red Lizards Darko Nikac, who is one more part of Karim Bencherifa’s attacking quartet that also includes Edgar Marcelino and Ryuji Sueoka. Although currently on the sidelines due to injury, Nikac has scored three goals in six appearances for his new club and remains a key part of the West Maharashtra outfit’s future plans.

Weakness: In the face of the attacking prowess of Pune FC lies the brittle nature of their backline, which endured a poor start to the season. They conceded as many as seven times in their first five matches and failed to collect even a single clean sheet. Yet, they have managed to shut out opponents completely twice in their last three games.

Injuries have also been a major cause of concern for Bencherifa of late with several major attacking players on the medical table at the moment. When the attackers were on song, the defense looked lacklustre and when the defense gained solidity, the attackers were sidelined. Thus a string of complete performances from the Red Lizards is yet to be seen. But this comes in as a welcome break for them with the opportunity to regroup and stake their claim for the title during the remainder of the season.

Prediction: Pune FC have looked good over the past few seasons but have failed to capitalise when it mattered the most. If they are able to do so, they are certain to finish in the top three and maybe have an outside chance for a top-of-the-table finish.


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