It is unfortunate that the most significant game in Bengaluru FC’s history will be played not in an atmosphere of celebration but amid grim silence. That the first leg of this AFC Cup quarterfinal clash will take place behind closed doors is not ideal, but both teams will need to arrive at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Wednesday focused only on the task.
In the three years since its inception, BFC may have won the I-League twice, but this meeting with Singapore’s Tampines Rovers puts the club on the threshold of something grander. Only two Indian sides have advanced to the semifinals of the AFC Cup before — Dempo (in 2008) and East Bengal (in 2013); for a three-year-old entity to make the cut now would be a triumph.
Albert Roca, BFC’s new head coach, faces an enormous challenge. He has had six weeks to prepare his side — with a number of changes in personnel — for a quarterfinal; his position is unenviable.
It does not help that BFC’s Asian campaign has been split over two domestic seasons. The I-League ended in May and it has been nearly four months since the side played a competitive game. In contrast, Tampines is 20 games into the S-League season, which began in February.
Roca admitted that this put the rival side at an advantage. “This is the first game we are playing in three and a half months with a new coach and new players. It is not the best thing. But we cannot make excuses,” he said.
It is clear that Roca’s style of play will be different from that of his predecessor Ashley Westwood, who preferred to be quick, direct, and at times counter-attacking. By all accounts, the Catalan favours a passing game, with importance attached to possession of the ball. “We are from Barcelona,” he said at his first media appearance, “and it will be different from last year.”
How quickly BFC adapts to Roca’s plans remains to be seen. Cameron Watson, the new manager’s first overseas signing, admitted that teams did not easily learn to play possession-based football.
Back in 2013, it took his Adelaide United side 10 matches, he reckoned, to properly execute Spaniard Josep Gombau’s methods. “But after game 10,” Watson said, “nobody could touch us.” BFC, though, does not have 10 games to find its feet in the AFC Cup.
Tampines got to the quarterfinals with an extra-time win over Mohun Bagan in the round-of-16. The former Liverpool and Arsenal winger Jermaine Pennant — no stranger to India having turned out for Pune City in the ISL — played a key role in that victory.
Tampines is the first Singaporean side to have made it to the last eight of the AFC Cup since 2008. This is a good team, but not one BFC will be afraid of.
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