BY ASHWIN MURALIDHARAN Follow @AshwinMNair10 on Twitter
As the count to the fourth edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) ticks down, Goal analyses the strengths and weaknesses of each of the ten clubs participating this time around.
Next in line are Bengaluru FC, who are making their first foray into the IMG-Reliance-backed league.
The JSW Group-owned outfit was only founded in 2013 but already has enjoyed a trophy-laden four-year spell in the I-League but have now opted to join the ISL bandwagon. However, very few would bet against Bengaluru FC making an impression in their first season in the ISL, given that they stormed to the I-League title in their first season of existence in 2013-14.
Moreover, despite requiring a player draft to assemble the Indian contingent, the team has a settled look about themselves with many of the regulars retained or picked again in the auction. Coach Albert Roca has also been in charge for more than a year now, lending the team a stable feel about it.
This is how their squad looks like for ISL 4:
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Lalthuammawia Ralte, Abhra Mondal
Defenders: Rahul Bheke, Zohmingliana Ralte, Harmanjot Khabra, Collin Abranches, Juanan, John Johnson, Nishu Kumar, Subashish Bose, Joyner Lourenco
Midfielders: Erik Paartalu, Dimas Delgado, Edu Garcia, Toni Dovale, Lenny Rodrigues, Malsawmzuala, Boithang Haokip, Alwyn George, Robinson Singh, Bidyananda Singh
Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Udanta Singh, Miku, Braulio Nobrega, Thongkhosiem Haokip
One of the foremost strengths for Bengaluru FC is their goalkeeper. In managing to rope in Gurpreet Singh Sandhu as their first choice custodian, Roca's team have a solid presence at the back. We have already seen Gurpreet make the difference for the Blues in the AFC Cup, where he saved a penalty in the second leg against 4.25 SC in North Korea and made a host of saves against FC Istiklol away at Dushanbe.
Another huge factor for Bengaluru FC is that the team has already gelled well, having started pre-season well in advance due to their AFC Cup commitments.
Bengaluru's attack also has a versatile feel to it, given the calibre and skill sets of the players involved. What is a real plus point in attack is the presence of two star Indian names in Sunil Chhetri and Udanta Singh. While Chhetri offers subtlety and class, Udanta offers raw pace and can be a game-changer from the wings. Offering some height and physical presence up front is Venezuelan striker Miku, who is 6'1" tall and has a good goalscoring record of late, and former Atletico Madrid striker Braulio Nobrega.
On the wings, 27-year-old Spanish winger Edu Garcia also seems to be a promising option, having featured regularly for Zaragoza in the previous season and he can also play as a left-back.
One of the most noticeable weaknesses about Bengaluru FC is the lack of a reliable goalkeeping backup to India No.1 Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. Though Gurpreet is an excellent choice between the sticks, Bengaluru's alternative options do not really inspire confidence. Abhra Mondal and Lalthuammawia Ralte have not really seen much first-team action of late and are not known to be solid in goal. Roca will be left hoping Gurpreet stays fit throughout the tournament.
Last season, Roca's Achilles heel in the I-League was his defence which shipped goals in crucial encounters. Englishman John Johnson and Juanan struggled at times, though the pair did have fitness issues at times. The gaffer and the fans will be hoping Juanan and Johnson are back to their imperious best this time around.
Another factor is the lack of established backups to Johnson and Juanan. Zohmingliana Ralte, aka Zotea, was impressive for Aizawl in their I-League winning campaign but has not really featured in the first XI during the four AFC Cup games. Apart from Zotea, Roca's Indian options in central defence are sparse.
Bengaluru's midfield is also overly dependent on the duo of Dimas Delgado and Erik Paartalu. While Paartalu is the anchor-man the creativity must stem from Delgado, who is nursing an injury. There is no backup to the duo, with the likes of Lenny Rodrigues and Alwyn George not exactly the creme de la creme.
It could also be said that, to an extent, Bengaluru's full-backs are more attack-minded and not defensively solid. Nishu Kumar is more of an attacking left-back and does well as a wing-back while the same could be said about Harmanjot Khabra, who is a converted midfielder.
As far as opportunities for young players go, midfielder Bidyananda Singh and left-back Subashish Bose look set for breakthrough campaigns. The 19-year-old Manipuri is a highly rated defensive midfielder who many see a star for the future.
He was part of the ATK setup last season and made six appearances, impressing considerably. Now, under the tutelage of Spaniard Albert Roca, Bidyananda might well be set for a huge campaign this time around.
Subashish Bose is another name who looks set for a big campaign. The 22-year-old left-back was a starter for Mohun Bagan in the previous I-League campaign and impressed many. However, a streak of recklessness saw him pick two red cards during the campaign. He will need to curb that instinct and make the most of his opportunity in the ISL this time around.
The Danger Man
The danger man for Bengaluru FC is invariably Sunil Chhetri. The 33-year-old has been a flagbearer for the team from Bengaluru ever since their inception and this campaign will be no different. The Indian captain has been playing ever so well, despite his age, and will be a vital cog in Roca's plans.
Despite losing some of his pace, Chhetri is an intelligent player who knows how to bring his best out in games. His touch and vision are still above par and it is something Roca will be looking to harness. Chhetri will be the link between midfield and forward in all likelihood for Bengaluru FC
More importantly, Chhetri is a big game player, as he has shown time and time again for both Bengaluru FC and India. Expect Chhetri to come up with some huge goals this season as well.
Overall, Bengaluru FC have a settled and balanced squad which has several game changers in it. They have the know-how and personnel to make an impact in their first ever season in the league. Will they win the trophy is a question that only time can answer. One thing is for sure, Bengaluru FC will be a force to be reckoned with this season!