Following a shock AFC Cup exit on Wednesday, Bengaluru FC could be looking at their first ever trophy-less season in their six-year existence. It's the first time that an Indian club has failed to make the group stages of Asia's second-rung competition (since qualifiers started for India in 2016), and just four years since BFC made the final in a superb, historic run.
Ahead of their ISL playoff tie against ATK, the reigning champions have been given a wake-up call. There were cracks in their performance right through, but an early unbeaten run, capped off by a good run of home wins that started with FC Goa in January, has seen them through quite comfortably to the last four. Staying in Asia next year will need them to lift the trophy on March 8. On current form, they will need to set quite a few things right.
Where did it all go wrong for Indian football's team of the decade and how can they fix it?
Shortage of goals
In simple terms, BFC just aren't scoring enough. Their 22 goals through the league stages of the ISL are comfortably the poorest return among all four playoffs qualifiers -- table-toppers Goa pumped in more than twice as many (46). In fact, BFC outscored only two teams -- Hyderabad FC and NorthEast United, who finished bottom two.
Without their top foreign striker of the last two seasons in Venezuelan Miku, the frontline rarely looked as sharp and incisive. BFC have tried three foreign strikers this season, and they might finally have a solution in Deshorn Brown, but the over-reliance on captain Sunil Chhetri remains quite obvious.
No Plan B
BFC have had to grind out certain results, often taking a bit of pride in this work ethic. But unlike a lot of previous seasons, they seem to have panicked in pressure situations a lot earlier, and lost composure at key points in games as a result.
Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has been a key factor, but it was one of his off-days that led to a 2-0 result away to Mumbai City, who also beat them at the Kanteerava this season. They also dropped crucial points against Goa and Hyderabad in matches where they held the upper hand for most points, owing to defensive errors.
Part of the reason for this could have been missing crucial players in defence and midfield early in the season, which forced coach Carles Cuadrat to field some players in unconventional positions. For instance, Ashique Kuruniyan was switched from his wide left position to left back, a swap that he gave a good go at, but made a few errors every now and then.
Much was expected from former Chennaiyin midfielder Raphael Augusto, and while he put in good shifts whenever on the pitch, the gelling with the rest of the team just didn't set in for the Brazilian playmaker. An injury midway through the season further squandered his opportunity to work up a proper understanding with his team.
Hoof it up!
Why have BFC scored such few goals this season?
For some reason, they have played a lot more direct than what you expect from them. Perhaps they were still doing a lot of it, but it was getting papered over by the superb conversion rate of the front two of Chhetri and Miku last season. This time around, though, the absence of fluidity in midfield has shown up quite often.
They still create eye-catching phases of play, where the ball rolls along the ground, back to forth, and across the sides of the pitch. However, the end product from all of it has been a lot less effective than it was in their title-winning run last year, or a final appearance on ISL debut the year before that. One player who has shown that inconsistency all the way through is winger Udanta Singh, who has been dropped from the lineup a few times in order to get his mind in the right space.
While their set-piece ability has stood out -- 14 out of their 22 ISL goals this season -- it shows they have not played well enough through open play to threaten opposition defences, and that's highly uncharacteristic.
Where do they go from here?
BFC have been a bit Jekyll-and-Hyde this season, and apart from an indifferent ISL where they never seemed to hit their straps completely, their four AFC Cup matches showed that too. A 9-1 annihilation of Paro FC, Bhutan preceded Wednesday's loss to Maziya, where they wrested the initiative a couple of times, only to need Chhetri's expertise on dead balls to force a shootout.
Is Cuadrat's time as coach at the club leaving him a bit jaded of ideas -- he was also Albert Roca's assistant during their historic run to the AFC Cup final four years ago -- and the team reflecting that ennui? Do they need to start thinking about building their team around someone other than Chhetri? Does the management need to take a step back and re-examine how inspired their recruitments need to be?
One thing is for sure -- the abject failure in the current AFC Cup campaign will sting for a while, because for many at the club, proving themselves at AFC remains a massive motivating factor.
Perhaps they can play their remaining knockout matches with that target to spur each other on. Give it everything they've got -- for now, even the set piece goals will suffice.