Bengaluru FC's title defence aspirations look all but gone. Having begun the 2017 I-League with three wins on the trot, all at their home ground Kanteerava Stadium, they were looking like the real deal, until they ran into East Bengal in Barasat on January 22. A month and three days later, East Bengal would give them a bitter night in Bengaluru, administering a 3-1 score line that also snapped a sequence of four unbeaten home matches this season.
There were some obvious fault lines in the Bengaluru machinery on the night, and coach Albert Roca cannot afford to ignore them any longer, with just a clutch of matches left to turn around what looks like a season beyond salvaging.
Self-doubt has crept in to a good team
"We had lots of expectations and wanted to play better from the first minute. We tried, but there are lots of self-doubts. And these doubts come from results," confessed Roca in the post-match conference. It was without a doubt the most anxious performance by Bengaluru, at least in recent years.
There were some elementary errors being made by the side, which still continues to attract some of the best football talent not just from India but abroad. Mistimed passes, scuffed shots and attempted passes down the touchline which went out for throw-ins for the opposition -- there were plenty of schoolboy errors from BFC on a night where little went right for them. Since their first I-League in 2013-14, they have always approached matches with a swagger, but there's a palpable sense of lack of self-belief, which has just grown exponentially since their first defeat in Barasat.
Tactical acumen not backed up by performance
Roca likes his team to play possession football, and while they showed glimpses of it with their 4-3-3 formation in the knockout stages of the AFC Cup last year and the first three matches of the I-League this time around, that midfield efficiency has slowly worn off in subsequent games. As the league has gone on, the first casualty of this mediocrity in the middle of the park was Eugeneson Lyngdoh.
On Saturday, Roca lined up with a 3-4-3, hoping that Sandesh Jhingan would anchor the defence sufficiently alongside Juan Antonio and Salam Ranjan Singh. It looked promising for the first quarter of an hour, especially with Sunil Chhetri leading the attacking line and chasing virtually everything ahead of him. Once East Bengal scored in the 23rd minute through Wedson Anselme, though, they had to reorganise themselves to set up a back four.
In the second half, Roca went for all or nothing by introducing Daniel Lalhlimpuia in place of Salam Ranjan, which made them a 4-2-4 effectively. By the closing stages, after conceding a brace to Robin Singh, Bengaluru's next two substitutions took out both Harmanjot Khabra and Sena Ralte, leaving them with just two recognised defenders. Ironically, that was the only time they got a goal. There was no doubt the horse had bolted by then.
Discipline on the pitch needs to tighten up
Part of the lack of self-belief was visible at crucial times in a match that involved an opposition team that knows how to play off any disciplinary weaknesses of the opposition. The biggest culprit on the night was Jhingan, who got a yellow card late in the second half, but perhaps had three other tackles that could easily have attracted the censure of a stricter referee. Captain Sunil Chhetri lost his cool a couple of times, as did young Ralte. CK Vineeth picked up a needless yellow card for responding to a foul called against one of his teammates.
There was an off-the-field fracas involving the fans and East Bengal's Mehtab Hossain, but it took the spotlight away from Jhingan getting saved by the whistle, quite literally so. He dug his elbow into Robin in the middle of the park and threw his hands up knowing he could be in trouble. The referee R Venkatesh blew the whistle, but made it a long one to signal the end of the game.
Bengaluru were lucky to have finished with 11 players on the field.
Key personnel missing from important positions
Without John Johnson at the heart of defence and Amrinder Singh in goal, there was always a sense of tension whenever the ball was played in near BFC's penalty box. There are new defensive combinations that Roca is forced to try out, and the newest addition to that was goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya.
He wasn't really at fault for any of the goals directly, but the defence was crying out for some leadership. Juan tried to do that in the first few minutes of the match, but once he was wrung inside out by the classy Anselme during the first goal, his confidence seemed lower through the rest of the game. He came up with a couple of superb interceptions, including one tackle that denied Robin his first clear look at goal, but there were definite gaps in communication that cost the team dearly in the end.
East Bengal deserve their share of credit
"I didn't think the team was confident enough going into the game. We wanted to be more aggressive. But East Bengal punished us in the worst moment, each time the team seemed to move ahead," said Roca after the match, and that was an appropriate description of how the match panned out.
East Bengal were calm on the ball, and their foreign players Anselme, Ivan Bukenya and newcomer Chris Payne of Australia all pulled their weight in with decisive interventions.
Payne was the newest of the lot, and while he didn't appear to be the swiftest on the pitch, his physicality made it possible for East Bengal to play long balls in the style that their coach Trevor Morgan has always preferred from his teams. Robin provides a perfect foil up front for him, though one game is far too little to draw too many conclusions about how successful this partnership will be.
Every time BFC looked to be aggressive, East Bengal not only replied with decisive moves forward, but also found a way to douse the fire and slow things down. Mehtab has been criticised of late for some of his performances, but gave a good account of himself in midfield.
Just five days after a performance in Aizawl that snapped their own unbeaten run this season, Morgan had reasons to be pleased with the turnaround against the champions.
"You do the talking on the football pitch. It was important we showed some character and resolve, because we were poor last time (in Aizawl)," said Morgan. "It was pleasing the way we approached the game today, we scored a couple of top quality goals. The boys can enjoy the night tonight."