Karnataka and Bangalore have produced a number of accomplished footballers like Ahmed Khan, Ulganathan and Arunmaynayigam. However, one thing that was always missing in the garden city was proper craze for a football club which the city could identify itself with. The contribution of teams like ITI and HAL to the local football scene is undeniable but they never managed to forge spiritual connection with fans. Therefore, it was a surprise when close to 10,000 people crammed into the Bangalore Stadium to watch Bengaluru FC’s I-League opener against Mohun Bagan. All tickets were sold out beforehand and there was long queue to get in the stadium hours before the kick-off. There were other things that the Garden City has not seen before like fans wearing a club’s jersey to cheer them or AC/DC’s Highway to Hell being played during half-time. From the looks of it, JSW group’s PR group had played their publicity cards just right and people were genuinely curious about the new club.
Bengaluru FC curiously nicknamed “Men of Steel” couldn’t have asked for a higher profile encounter in their first ever I-League match as they welcomed Mohun Bagan, three time former champions and one of the illustrious names in the country. Both teams started with similar formations, playing a 4-3-1-2. BFC had the veteran John Menyongar playing behind strikers while Katsumi Yusa lined up for Bagan in the same position. It was Bengaluru FC who settled in the match quicker, earning a number of set-pieces in first few minutes, one of which saw Adil Khan make a goal-line clearance. But it was Mohun Bagan who had the first concrete chance as they were awarded a penalty which was missed by Katsumi. Bengaluru continued to be the stronger side in first half though Mohun Bagan had their share of scoring chances – first half ended goal-less mainly due to profligacy from both teams.
The second half had more goal-mouth action as both teams started to tire. Five minutes after the restart Sean Rooney ghosted past the Mohun Bagan defence to stab home a close range goal to score Bengaluru FC’s first ever goal in I-League. Mohun Bagan’s poor defence from set-piece situations was a major culprit for this goal. Minutes later Bengaluru FC had a golden chance to double their lead but Rooney failed to capitalize as his weak penalty was saved by veteran Sandip Nandy. Katsumi Yusa, perhaps Bagan’s best player, was trying to create goals on his own, after seeing his strikers fail repeatedly and the Japanese came breathtakingly close twice between 60th and 70th minutes, striking the frame of the goal. Mohun Bagan looked visibly fatigued when Bengaluru FC’s coach made two attacking changes to introduce Robin Singh and Sunil Chhetri. Both strikers had golden chances to settle the game but missed when it was easier to score. Bengaluru suffered a blow late in the game when Thoi Singh was sent off after a deliberate dive in Mohun Bagan box. The Mariners took advantage of this on the 91st minute as a corner from Shankar Oraon was headed in by CS Sabeeth for his third goal in four matches this season. The match eventually ended in a 1-1 draw.
For Bengaluru FC, this was an encouraging start. They had majority of ball possession and came across as a well drilled unit with often pitch perfect co-ordination with each other. Meetei was especially impressive as he ran down the touchline time and again, causing problems to Mohun Bagan’s right flank. Bengaluru FC also played a passing game and used the dimensions of the ground to their own advantage. Karim Bencharifa’s tactics were not successful in this match. Mohun Bagan concentrated too much on long balls being aimed at Eric upfront and expecting him to latch on to one of them (which prompted parts of the crowd to liken them with Stoke City). This caused two problems. First, Eric is not equipped to play as a target man. He has heavy first touch, his turning is poor and with John Johnson doing a stellar job on him, the African was rendered ineffective. Second, the small dimension of Bangalore Stadium turf meant that a slightly over-hit long-ball often ended up going for a throw-in. In contrast Bengaluru’s decision to play short passes was perfectly suited to the ground.
Mohun Bagan didn’t have a single winger in the team on Sunday which made them over-dependent on full-backs. However, with Wahid Sali drifting inside often, Bengaluru FC wingers and their left back had a free reign on the flanks. This eventually pushed MP Zakeer to drift outwards but meant Mohun Bagan had a one man disadvantage in central midfield. Bengaluru’s high pressing also caused Mohun Bagan midfielders considerable problems and led to regular loss of possession.
In terms of individual performances Katsumi Yusa stood out as the tricky Japanese was individually responsible for every single attacking move Mohun Bagan stringed. Bagan fans should be itching see the Japanese playing together with Odafa Okalie as the combination may prove to be lethal. Nigerian Echezona was also effective and marked Sean Rooney out for large parts of the match. For Bengaluru John Johnson was a rock at the back, his inch-perfect tackle on Eric Muranda prevented a scoring chance to Bagan during the last seconds. Malemngamba Meetei also had a good game while Menyongar was quietly effective.
While this was an encouraging start for both teams, in some ways, it was also evident that Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan need to make significant improvements should they want to finish high up the table. The home team will be taking heart from the local support as well. BFC management had made a novel effort to line-up the stadium entrance with life-size pictures of each player, so that the fans of the new club could identify them. Taking a cue from Pune FC, Bengaluru FC has also strived to set-up a connection with local people incorporating Bangalore Palace and Gandaberunda (a mythical creature which appears on Karnataka’s coat of arms) in their club crest. The decision to sell merchandise inside stadium premises was another master-stroke and the number of fans wearing their club’s colours was significantly high for such a young club. It will be interesting to see if Bengaluru FC can set-up a fan base in near future as Bangalore surely needs club to call its own.
The first round was not shown live on television, so fans missed most of the action.
Newly crowned Durand Cup champions Mohammedan SC welcomed Pune FC at Kolkata for first match of I-League 2013/14. The Black Panthers had spent most of their time celebrating their first Durand title in 73 years and didn’t prepare well enough for this game. It was somewhat surprising that they took the lead against the run of play early in first half through Joshimar. However, the Red Lizards regrouped quickly and restored parity within just five minutes through debutant Raul Fabiani. The 6 feet 6 inches high striker was in the thick of the action in second half as he assisted James Mayer to give Pune FC the lead on 51st minute. Fabiani scored his second 14 minutes before the final whistle and was sent off immediately after picking up a second booking for taking his shirt off in celebration. Pune FC’s new foreigners were a hit on first day, along with the young Nikhil Kadam. Mohammedan though, were poor. Penn Orji was subbed off early in second half with an injury while Tolgay Ozbey had a terrible game. Mohammedan’s weak line-up of Indian players is already starting to hurt while Pune FC, notorious for their slow starts, picked up their best opening victory in I-League till date.
The result which sent shockwaves in Indian football fraternity was Shillong Lajong’s 3-0 mauling of Dempo in Goa. Dempo, pick of a number of experts to be I-League favourites this season had never lost or dropped points against Lajong, a team known for their poor away record, at home. In fact, their last two matches against Lajong at home yielded full points and nine goals for the five time I-League winners. Dempo started the match poorly with a number of miss-passes and rightly conceded a goal at the half-hour mark through Lajong’s new recruit Cornell Glen. The Trinidad & Tobago striker cut past both foreigner defenders Dempo fielded to finish with emphasis. Eight minutes later Boithand Haokip doubled Lajong’s advantage with an excellent free-kick. Glen rounded off the scoreline in second half to secure a famous win for the Reds. Dempo will need to regroup after this disastrous loss but Lajong pick up three invaluable points which may prove crucial in the end.
A superbly organized Salgaocar dominated Churchill Brothers to deserving secure a solitary goal win in this season’s first Goan derby. Staying true to his reputation, Derek Perreira’s side worked like a well-oiled machine from start with Claude Gnakpa and Darryl Duffy combining well upfront. Duffy added his name to a list of foreigners who scored on their debuts on the first day after capitalizing on a mistake from Churchill custodian. Sukhwinder Singh may take some time to get used to Goan conditions and it will be intriguing to see how quickly the defending champions return to form. Salgaocar, on this form, should be regarded as one of the title contenders.
Cash strapped United SC put behind their troubles on and off the field with a clinical 2-0 win over I-League new boys Rangdajied FC thanks to second half strikes from Ranty Martins and Eric Brown. Martins, I-League top scorer for past three seasons, were especially impressive as he assisted and scored once. It was a rude welcome for Rangdajied in I-League and they will need to improve a lot in order to stay up in I-League for one more season.
The other 1-1 draw of first round saw Sporting Clube de Goa come away with a point against Mumbai FC. John Coutinho put Mumbai FC ahead in first half with Ogba Kalou’s penalty kick in mid-way of second half restored parity for Sporting.