There have been quite a few surprises in the seventh edition of the I-League so far. Holders Churchill Brothers remain winless after four rounds, while new boys Bengaluru FC sit at the top of the table, after winning all but one of their games. The ‘men of steel’ have been brilliant in all their games, and the only blot in their campaign so far has been a 1-1 draw with Mohun Bagan. While Ashley Westwood’s boys are yet to play on the road, the four home games have, nonetheless, shown that the new boys can be touted as dark horses for I-league title this term. Although the ride will get bumpier in the next few rounds, the newly-born club certainly have it in them to challenge for the I-League title.
The Garden City boys started off with a 1-1 draw against Mohun Bagan in the first round, which was followed by three straight wins againsts Rangdajied United, United SC and Mohammedan SC. The wins have not only illustrated the strength of Westwood’s squad, but at the same time, the manner in which these wins have been earned, has displayed the strong character of the team. Leading from the back is Englishman John Johnson, a lanky centre-back, who has been exceptionally brilliant throughout all the four games, and has also scored three goals. Johnson’s performances have been extremely vital in the club’s string of positive results so far. The Brit has been solid at the back, and was crucial in the two clean sheets against Rangdajied and United SC. On the other hand, Johnson has also scored a goal each in the three successive wins. His physical presence inside the box during set pieces has come in handy for the club, and will be a major headache for I-League defences throughout the season. If early indications are anything to go by, the robust defender, in future, can turn out to be one of the best footballing imports to the country.
One area where Bengaluru FC have stamped their authority this season, has been in their flanks. The likes of Beikhokhei Beigaichho and Malemnganba Meitei have been in brilliant form, and have played important parts in the team’s unbeaten start to the season. Former East Bengal winger Beikhokhei, in particular, was instrumental in the club’s wins, and has been a pain in the neck for opposition full-backs. The Mizo youngster has already raked up 5 assists from 4 games, with all three of John Johnson’s headed goals coming from Beikhokhei corners. Beingaicho has put in crosses into the box with dangerous effect this season, and Johnson, Rooney and co. have reaped the benefits of his good form with devastating results. Meitei too was quite impressive against Bagan, but then missed out his starting place in the Rangdajied game due to illness. The former HAL man is a treat to watch when he is at his top gear; and alongside Beingaichho, threatens to form one of the deadliest wing pairs in the I-League.
Up front, the club has benefitted from the industriousness of Australian forward Sean Rooney. The striker has not only scored three goals for his side, but his overall contribution to the team has been quite commendable too. Rooney has been one of the focal points of the club’s attack, and the attacker himself has created many opportunities for his teammates so far. With the likes of Chhetri and Robin complementing Rooney, Ashley Westwood wouldn’t probably lose much sleep worrying about goals. Rooney has also been well supported by the former Shillong Lajong star Johnny Menyongar. The Liberian medio has been quite effective playing behind the strikers, and has also, at times, dropped deeper to help his team see more of the ball. Menyongar, despite being in his thirties, adds that creative spark to the side, and will definitely feature prominently in Ashley Westwood’s side this season. After not having the best of seasons in 2012-13, Menyongar’s performances seem to indicate that the Liberian footballer is starting to regain his touch that once made him the most popular player among the Shillong Lajong faithful.
Pawan Kumar, Vishal Kumar, Curtis Osano, Sunil Chhetri, Keegan Pereira, Darren Calreira and others have too chipped in with important contributions for Bengaluru FC this season. Ashley Westwood has got a majority of his tactics spot on; while the fans of the new club have roared the team on throughout all the games. However, one could argue that Bengaluru FC have also been lucky with the opening fixtures. After the opening game against Bagan, the club faced a Rangdajied side that had travelled from Kolkata after a 2-0 loss to United SC. The men of steel next took on an injury-hit United SC, before clashing against an out-of-sorts Mohammedan SC team. Moreover, all the four games were played under the comfort of their home stadium. Ashley Westwood’s men will face much tougher tests as the season progresses, and in order to sustain the title challenge, the club must do well on the road. How Westwood manages his squad will be crucial in deciding the club’s fate this season. Bengaluru FC has given the garden city’s football fans quite a few reasons to cheer for in the past few weeks. Considering it’s their first ever season of existence, even a top half finish would be quite a commendable achievement for Bengaluru FC.