ISL 2018-19: Bengaluru FC losing steam at the wrong time as first-half sluggishness bites again

Ahead of Bengaluru’s Indian Super League (ISL) clash against Kerala Blasters earlier this week, head coach Carles Cuadrat had scoffed at the suggestion that his side had failed to impose the same dominance they had shown in their runners-up finish in the last season.

“I have been hearing coaches say that they have been playing very well and they have played better than Bengaluru. But in the end, we have been getting points in almost all our games, except the Mumbai game. So, this means something. The players put everything in every game,” the Spaniard had stated.

Two games later, Cuadrat’s statement might well ring true partially, except that now even the points have started to dry up.

On Saturday at Chennai, the league leaders were handed their second loss of the season as they went down 1-2 to the bottom-placed team in the ISL. It was a repeat of last season’s final, only this time both teams were at the opposite ends of the league table rather than fighting neck-to-neck.

The Blues were sluggish in the first-half in their 2-2 draw against Kerala Blasters earlier this week and they paid the price for committing the same offence against Chennaiyin FC.

It was no surprise then that Cuadrat’s men found themselves trailing 2-0 behind for the second match in a row as they paid the price for another poor 45 minutes.

Time and time again in the first period on Saturday, Bengaluru’s players were caught napping in possession and that came back to bite them when Harmanjot Khabra lost the ball in a crucial area of the pitch to the impressive Raphael Augusto.

Nishu Kumar then fluffed his clearance to allow Jeje Lalpekhlua to break his goal-scoring drought even though Gurpreet Singh Sandhu should have done much better with his attempted save.

It only continued to get worse for Bengaluru’s midfield and defence as the half progressed with Rino Anto looking shaky. Anto was at fault for the second goal as he allowed Gregory Nelson to steal a jump on him and head the ball into the goal. The fact that Anto was given the entire 90 minutes show the issues with squad depth for Bengaluru.

While Bengaluru’s midfield and defence failed to cover themselves in glory, the attackers were not much better either in the first-half with Miku struggling for service. The Venezuelan striker looked rusty on his return from an injury layoff and it showed in his play on Saturday with a lack of sharpness evident.

Sunil Chhetri too, barely created any impact in the first period as a completely disjointed Bengaluru looked a shadow. New signing Luisma, meanwhile, looked anonymous on an ISL debut to forget for the Spaniard. However, he is yet to gel with the squad and he could be given a bit of leeway.

Just like against Kerala, the Blues seemed to wake up after the half-time interval with Chhetri timing his run to perfection to head in an excellent cross from Xisco. This time it was the Chennaiyin defence which was caught on their heels.

However, that was as good as it got for Bengaluru with their rhythm and passing completely disappearing after the goal. No late siege was laid on the Chennaiyin goal despite the scoreline with the hosts closing out the game comfortably. Only a snapshot by Xisco in the 82nd minute really troubled the Chennaiyin defence in the dying minutes as the visitors ran out of gas.

The season is already a write-off for Chennaiyin and their second win of the season will do little to soothe the pain of a dismal title defence. John Gregory, though, can be happy with the fact that his old trusted lieutenants in Jeje, Nelson and Augusto finally came to the party.

For Cuadrat, a campaign which was cruising in auto-pilot for quite some time is now starting to run into rough weather just when the business end of the season is approaching.

A play-off qualification which should have been sealed against Kerala will now have to wait at least one game more. In all probability, Bengaluru should seal a top-four spot sooner rather than later.

However, if the last four matches have taught Cuadrat anything, it is that nothing can be taken for granted anymore. The Spanish coach saw his side’s vulnerabilities in midfield and defence exposed at times against Chennaiyin and he has his work cut out in trying to shore up those two aspects as the crucial stage approaches.

The attack might well sort itself once Miku regains his match fitness and sharpness but the league leaders are not without chinks in their armour and will have to wary of that fact in the coming games. Despite their frailties earlier, the side were being able to still churn out the results but with the points now hard to come by, Cuadrat might just have to shake a few thing up.

We are entering that period where teams with momentum on their sides can make a big splash and Bengaluru are currently in danger of doing just the opposite.