Defences were on top as FC Pune City and Bengaluru FC played out a cagey and goal-less stalemate in the first-leg of their Indian Super League (ISL) play-off tie.
While there never really was much defending to do for both sides on a night where the battle was primarily played in the midfield, no defender will say no to a clean-sheet. After all, the fact that the two sides find themselves fighting it out for a place in the finals is partly down to their solid defence over the course of the league stages.
The Blues held the best rearguard in the league, conceding only 16 goals while the Stallions were third best in that department having conceded 21. That picture has very much translated into where they found themselves in the final standings after the culmination of their 18 matches each.
At the hearts of both the defences involved on Wednesday night stood four familiar names – Juanan Antonio and John Johnson in the whites of Bengaluru and Rafael Lopez and Gurtej Singh in the ever synonymous orange and purple of Pune.
Out of the 19 matches Albert Roca’s Bengaluru have played so far, Spaniard Juanan has started in 15 of them while the Englishman Johnson has 14 to his name. On the other side, Ranko Popovic has been even more settled with his centre-back pairing. Lopez has started in each of the 19 matches while Gurtej has only missed two.
Both managers have sought largely to keep a settled centre-back partnership over the course of the season, tinkering to the very minimum. This approach by them has been shared by their Chennaiyin counterpart in John Gregory.
The Englishman’s side held the second best defence in the league stage, shipping in only 19 goals. For them, the Portuguese speaking duo of skipper Henrique Sereno and Mailson Alves have held the fort in the heart of the defence for the majority of the matches. The former has started in 15 out of their 18 matches after collecting a one-match suspension mid-way while the latter has started in 16.
Such has been their importance in Gregory’s plans that he chose to rest the pair for the final league match with Mumbai City FC after qualification to the play-offs had been secured.
With a reliable goalkeeper behind each of the three pairings, the coaches have been allowed to set up their respective sides with the most solid of foundations at the back. Having a reliable and steady pairing at the back has worked out ultimately to the benefit of the three sides in the league.
It hasn’t been all roses from the very get go for the three pairings, especially Gurtej and Lopez. They started shakily against the Delhi Dynamos in their opening match with the former looking vulnerable in particular. But Popovic has resisted the urge to chop and change and his persistence has paid off in the end in the form a blossoming partnership between the two central defenders.
Only FC Goa of the top four sides has been an exception to the rule having conceded 28 goals, one more than the wooden spoon holders NorthEast United FC. Sergio Lobera’s men however, do posses the most lethal attack in the league to cover up for their deficiencies at the back.
Ask Delhi Dynamos coach Miguel Angel Portugal about the negative impact of having an unsettled centre-back pairing and he will tell you. Through the course of the season, only Venezuelan defender Gabriel Cichero has been a steady figure at centre-back with 14 appearances.
He has had to partner with either of Edu Moya, Pratik Chowdhary, Rowilson Rodrigues or Mohammad Sajid Dhot at different stages of Delhi’s campaign. That in turn has led to having the worst defence in the league by a country mile, conceding a staggering 37 goals.
Or take Kerala Blasters, whose troubles in the first half of the season were for all to see. With Wes Brown being tried out in midfield, it was usually Sandesh Jhingan and Nemanja Lakic-Pesic who formed the centre-back pairing. The former struggled with poor form while the latter was a new entrant to the league. That ill-pairing transformed into poor results.
It was only in the second half of the season that Brown was moved back to his natural position in central defence to partner Jhingan. A run of games together for the duo coincided with an upturn in results for the Blasters towards the latter half of the campaign.
As the saying goes, a good attack wins you matches, but a good defence wins you the league. The mantra for the successful sides in this year’s ISL for the most part has been in establishing a settled centre-back pairing.
It has worked extremely well for the three sides in question, and how. It now remains to be seen if their approach will pay off in the form of a title, or if Lobera’s Goa will make a mockery of that philosophy.