Boasting of five India internationals in their ranks, including talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri, a formidable Bengaluru FC will begin their quest for title defence when they take on NorthEast United in their opening Indian Super League match in Bengaluru on Monday (October 21).
The Bengaluru-based side have been synonymous with consistency in India domestic football history. After three years of success in the I-League, they joined ISL in 2017 and made an instant impact.
Guided by Spanish coach Albert Roca, they put up a splendid show in their first season and topped the league phase standings though they suffered a heartbreaking loss in the final to Chennaiyin FC at home.
The next season (2018), Bengaluru had Roca’s protege Carles Cuadrat under whom they defeated FC Goa to clinch their maiden ISL title.
With a clutch of new signings and retention of key players, particularly domestic, Bengaluru look set to dominate again this season. They roped in India midfielder Ashique Kuruniyan this season.
With an all-Indian attacking line-up of Chhetri, Udanta Singh and now Kuruniyan, the defending champions look formidable on paper.
There were five Bengaluru FC players in Igor Stimac’s starting XI that played the first two World Cup qualifiers with captain Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Udanta, Rahul Bheke and Kuruniyan playing a significant role.
The Blues have added striker Manuel Onwu of Spain, who will have the unenviable task of replacing the prolific Miku, who has left the side.
Bengaluru FC registered a come-from-behind win against NorthEast United in the two-legged playoff en route the final last season. But it will not be easy for the home side to beat NorthEast United on Monday.
Despite the departure of some key players of the previous season, NorthEast United have made some big signing, including high profile Ghanaian Asamoah Gyan.
Bengaluru head coach Cuadrat said it’s “strange” that none of the teams have been able to retain their title in the ISL.
“I tell my players to be competitive so that we can reach the play-offs. No team has won it twice. It is a strange thing. It’s not our job to defend the title but right now (the job is) to reach the play-offs. After that we will do our best to win the title,” said the Spaniard.
“NorthEast United is a completely different team with a different coach. It is going to be a tough game for us. We have no idea about what NorthEast is going to offer. They have made some good signings like Asamoah Gyan.”
On the other hand, NorthEast United’s new head coach Robert Jarni is confident of a winning start at the Sree Kanteerava stadium.
“This will be a different game. We believe that we can do something good against them. We are confident and we will try to bring the three points.”
The former Croatian international and Real Madrid wing back, who took over from Eelco Schattorie, felt his side will have a slight advantage since most of Bengaluru’s key Indian players were away with the national team for a while and might not have had tuned into their side’s preparations.
“Yes, it will be a little advantage for us. As a coach, you want to have the full squad for training. But they could not have that because of the international break. But they have good players who know the coach and they are playing together from last season. It might help a little, but it is definitely not going to make a big difference,” Jarni said.
“My team is still young and I am still trying to influence my philosophy on them. This is my first season with this team. There are new players, so it is going to be difficult and we need time.