Bengaluru FC's crown slipping fast from grasp

Eight games into their quest for a third I-League title, Bengaluru FC's season is fast beginning to resemble those sine curves kids are taught in school about. Albert Roca's team began with three resounding wins at home, and they didn't concede a single goal in those three matches, scoring eight of their own. The peak of that curve came with a 3-0 win over Mumbai FC on January 18, with CK Vineeth scoring the first hat-trick of the season.

Exactly four weeks down the road, Bengaluru have now gone six matches without winning anything across all competitions. They have drawn three successive matches in the I-League, suffering back-to-back 2-1 defeats just before that.

While there are some reasons for concern, all is not lost for Bengaluru just yet.

Discipline is the key

One of the major areas where Bengaluru FC had broken down in recent matches was on-field discipline, and they were made to pay for the suspensions of key defenders John Johnson and Juan Antonio. Johnson's red card in the 2-1 defeat to Churchill Brothers was particularly needless, as the champions were already trailing at Tilak Maidan, but they were playing the game as equals, much as they did in the defeat at the hands of East Bengal just prior to the match in Goa. The red card, and the pitch side fracas that accompanied Johnson's dismissal, were the first signs that this team can crack under pressure, especially when trailing in matches. That is a feature that opponents have repeatedly exploited in games since then.

Inexperience at the back

With Johnson and Antonio out of the XI, the responsibility of shoring up the backline fell to Sandesh Jhingan and Salam Ranjan Singh against Aizawl FC. Roca also went back to the exact same starting XI that he employed at the start of the season across all other positions, possibly a sign of not knowing what his best starting lineup is.

One key difference between the Bengaluru team that reached the AFC Cup final last year and the current squad is the absence of Alvaro Rubio pulling the strings in midfield. Aizawl took advantage of Bengaluru's soft centre to get off to a bright start in the first half, using short passes and clever supporting play from Ashutosh Mehta, Alfred Jaryan and Brandon Vanlalremdika to pin the visitors back in their own half. That Aizawl only converted one of the numerous chances they created came back to haunt them later, as they could have had the match out of sight by half-time itself.

A change of strategy

Roca may have had a few choice words to say at the break - or perhaps it was just the impact of Sunil Chhetri's powerful pile-driver that drew the champions level just before half-time - but Bengaluru came out with greater purpose in the second half. Lenny Rodrigues ventured further forward, and right-back Harmanjot Khabra got involved in a number of attacks for the visitors. Aizawl were visibly rattled, and conceded a penalty that Albino Gomes pulled off an incredible save from. There should really have been a second goal for Bengaluru following Jhingan's header, but the officials spotted a foul on Gomes as he went up to try and parry the ball away. Bengaluru's second half performance was much more like it, as they dominated the midfield and created more openings with crosses and set-pieces, a feature of their game that has always remained a strength.

Chhetri's form is a positive

Captain Chhetri has been in good goal-scoring form for the champions, since converting from the penalty spot against Churchill Brothers. He also scored their only goal in a 2-1 defeat away to Al Wehdat in their AFC Champions League preliminary game, and his scoring form has been a balm of sorts at a time when they have struggled for inspiration. Chhetri's equaliser against Aizawl made him the leading Indian scorer in the national league with 90 goals, overtaking Bhaichung Bhutia.

The experiment with Honduran striker Roby Norales was discarded fairly early, with the striker loaned out to Ozone FC after a couple of outings for the first team. There is still a vacancy for a foreign player, and Bengaluru must invest wisely in a potential striker partner for Chhetri, especially with AFC Cup commitments coming up. There are defensive concerns for a team that has conceded 10 goals from their last six matches in all competitions, but the fact that they have scored at least one in all those matches will give Roca hope. What he would want is for more scorers to come to the fore besides his captain.

Long way to go yet

As impressive as Aizawl FC and Shillong Lajong have been this season, the title could still boil down to a three-horse race between East Bengal, Bengaluru and Mohun Bagan.

Bengaluru staked their claim early, but their poor form has seen them slip in those figures over the last four weeks. Yet, it must be remembered that out of their four matches against fellow-contenders Bagan and East Bengal, they still have three of those matches to play. East Bengal pay a visit to Bengaluru on February 25, and both legs of their encounter with Mohun Bagan are yet to take place. Those are nine vital points on offer, which could in theory haul them back into title contention. That makes it all the more imperative that Bengaluru stop leaking points in games leading up to those clashes that could determine the fate of the 2016-17 season.