The last fortnight or so has been a rollercoaster of emotions for the players of Bengaluru FC and their manager, Ashley Westwood. A second I-League title was followed by a humiliating exit from the Federation cup at the hands of the relegated, Aizawl FC in a two-legged tie in which they lost both at home and away.
On the very last day of the league as well, the Blues endured their worst defeat ever in a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Mohun Bagan, who took revenge after having to relinquish their title. Thus began Bengaluru’s worst run in a long time that now includes three domestic defeats on the trot since they lifted the league title.
It’s high-time Bengaluru leave their party mood behind and focus on pressing matters at hand. They are in a dire need to get back to winning ways.
Asia’s second most prestigious club competition, the AFC cup has been a happy hunting ground for the I-League champions in recent times. With all the bad results in the last two weeks, their only victory came in a crucial group stage game against Lao Toyota at the Sree Kanteerava stadium.
Goals from Eugenson Lyngdoh and Kim Song Yong secured Bengaluru a passageway into the knock out stage of the competition as group runners-up. They were far the better side on the day and made it into the knockout rounds of the competition for the second season in a row.
Bengaluru now face Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) in their final group game at Tan Sri Dato’ Haji Yunos stadium in Johor Baru, Malaysia.
The Malaysian side who were in the 2015 edition of the AFC cup have been perfect so far with five wins in five group games. In fact, they’re the only team in this year’s edition who are yet to drop a single point.
The Southern Tigers have been so dominant in the competition that they established themselves as group winners as early as the fourth round. They‘ve smashed in 18 goals and conceded just three.
Johor’s captain and playmaker, Safiq Bin Rahim was voted as the AFC Cup’s Most Valuable Player in their 2015 championship winning run and has been in incredible form yet again this season with six goals in five games. The skipper is expected to be out for this one though as Johor look to save him for the upcoming Malaysian FA Cup final against PKNS.
The 2015 AFC Cup final Man of the Match, Rahim will not be the only noteworthy absentee on the day. The list also includes regular starters like Martin Lucero, Pereyra Diaz, Aidil Zafuan and Marcos Antonio, as they too shall be rested for the final over the weekend.
Johor, who boast of an injury-free line-up at this crucial juncture in their season, could give some of their fringe players an opportunity to impress as they’ve already secured the status of group winners. Hence, players like Azinee Taib, Azamuddin Akil and Shakir Shaari could feature in the tie.
Ashley Westwood, who labelled Johor as the favorites to win the competition for a second season running, takes his side to face them in Malaysia for a second time in two years.
Their previous meeting at Johor came in the 2015 AFC Champions League preliminary qualifying round, which Bengaluru lost by a whisker in a 2-1 defeat after extra-time. Johor, who themselves couldn’t make it into the group stages of the Champions League, would later go into the AFC Cup and win it for the first time in their history.
The narrow 1-0 defeat earlier in the competition this season against Johor provides Bengaluru with some incentive to hit back at the defending champions. They gave them a real fight, but in the end couldn’t stop Safiq Rahim scoring the winning goal.
As expected, captain Sunil Chhetri will lead the line with North Korean striker, Kim Song Yong. Either Udanta Singh or CK Vineeth will complete the front-line. Michael Collins and Eugeneson Lyngdoh will partner up in the middle to stop Johor’s dynamic midfield. As always, the ever reliant duo of John Johnson and Curtis Osano will marshall Bengaluru’s defence, with Amrinder Singh in goal.
With crucial players expected to be rested for Johor, the game presents itself as a fantastic opportunity for Bengaluru to redeem themselves of their recent performances by producing a result that would only give them confidence for the knockout stages.
It is a stern test against the defending champions in their own backyard that would provide us with some crucial insight into Bengaluru’s credibility to go the distance in the AFC Cup, and maybe even win it; who knows! Anything is possible in football – just ask Leicester City.