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AFC Cup semi-final: Can Bengaluru FC go where no other Indian team has gone before?

This is the final frontier before the actual final.

Standing on the cusp of glory is a tricky thing. The periphery of achievement is a treacherous place, fraught with possibilities as well as regrets.

On the one hand, there is a chance of vaulting over existing barriers and breaking new ground, injecting self-belief into all peers and comrades and firing the imagination to explore previously unknown territory. Conversely, the journey could come to an end and leave the combatant on the precipice of ambition, set adrift short of the desired goal, waiting for another chance.

Come Wednesday evening, the Kanteerava Stadium will be positively buzzing with the anticipation of Bengaluru FC’s fate. The West Block Blues will be out in full voice to try and stop defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim from scoring. With all but two stands sold out, a crowd of 15,000-plus will fuel the burning desire in not only every BFC fan’s heart, but also in the heart of anybody and everybody aching for change in Indian football.

Why is this match a big deal for Indian football?

Bengaluru are only the third club in the history of Indian football to make it as far as the semi-finals of the AFC Cup, after Dempo in 2008 and East Bengal in 2013. However, they’re the ones who’ve looked the most likely to break this jinx.

For starters, they have achieved what their predecessors failed to do – not lose a leg of the semi-final. You read that right, Dempo lost both legs 4-1 and 1-0 to Lebanon’s Safa Sporting Club in 2008, and East Bengal suffered a similar fate, going down 4-2 and 3-0 to eventual champions Al-Kuwait.

The Indian club’s 1-1 result from the Larkin Stadium gives them a precious away goal and a chance to win the tie outright should they manage a clean sheet at the Kanteerava.

The AFC Cup may be the second-tier competition of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), but as Sunil Chhetri rightly admitted, Indian clubs are far away from the reaching the pinnacle of the AFC Champions League. They must first stamp their authority on the AFC Cup before thinking about the AFC Champions League.

“Yes, it is the biggest game of my club career,” Chhetri had told Scroll.in. “It is simply because we have a chance of going where no Indian club has been before. I’ve never been in a situation like this. We’re putting the country on the Asian map and it’s a very big deal.”

On equal footing

The draw away in Malaysia wasn’t just a first for Indian clubs but also for Bengaluru as a club themselves. The Blues have faced Johor thrice in past encounters, and lost all three encounters to the Malaysian club.

The goal scored by Eugeneson Lyngdoh – his and BFC’s second against the same opposition – helped them draw the match, the Indian club’s first time in fourth attempts, thereby crossing a crucial psychological barrier.

The biggest boost for Bengaluru will come in the form of the suspension of Johor’s strike trio, the twin Argentine threats of Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Juan Martin Lucero and Malaysian international Amri Yahyah, who were both shown their second yellow cards in the first leg at home. Diaz and Lucero are the highest goalscorers in the Malaysian Super League 2016, with 17 and 16 strikes, respectively. Between them they have scored more than 50 goals this calendar year, and Bengaluru did well in restricting Johor to a single goal in the first leg.

Safiq Rahim: BFC’s chief architect?

Of course, in Chhetri’s own words, to assume that Johor were all about their strikers would be “stupidity”. The Malaysian club have scored a massive 32 goals in the competition, of which Diaz and Lucero got 12. But the Argentine strikers are not the club’s highest scorers in the competition.

The danger man from the Blues' point of view has to be the most valuable player of the 2015 AFC Cup and Johor captain, Safiq Rahim, their top scorer in the tournament with seven goals. With his strikers suspended and the team needing a goal, Rahim may push forward from the midfield to play a No. 10.

Safee Sali is the only forward available to Johor coach Mario Gomez, and he will probably start as a sole striker in a 4-4-1-1 formation. It is interesting to note that Rahim has scored two and Sali, one, against Bengaluru in the group stages of this year’s competition.

An unchanged team for BFC?

BFC coach Albert Roca will be playing the fourth match of his tenure. Roca negated the talk of pressure and felt that the game was a great opportunity for Indian football, which he would like his boys to make the most of. “Johor are the champions of this competition. They are still favourites for me but it is a nice opportunity for us and Indian football. It’s going to be a tough mission but we are ready for it. We have shown that we are a competitive team and we have to do the same tomorrow,” he said while addressing the media on Tuesday.

Roca is expected to field an unchanged team from the previous game, with Chhetri and CK Vineeth partners in attack. Lyngdoh and Cameron Watson will be the midfielders driving on, while Spaniard Alvaro Rubio will play as a screen for the defence while kickstarting attacks from the back.

Alwyn George and Rino Anto will play as wing-backs supporting the midfield in a 3-5-2 formation, while Salaam Ranjan Singh, Juanan Gonzalez and Juan Antonio will be the central defenders ahead of keeper Amrinder Singh.

Off the bench, Daniel Lalhlimpuia and the returning Seiminlen Doungel will provide the firepower. But Roca will miss the services of Udanta Singh and Lalchhuanmawia – both of whom are yet to recover from injuries.

Unlike the last time, both teams have had an equal amount of time to prepare, with neither side having played a game after the first leg on September 28.

With interesting sub-plots and history to be made, this cracker of a contest is quite simply Indian football’s biggest match in a long, long time. Be sure to catch the match at Star Sports 1 SD and HD at 7 pm IST.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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