Bengaluru FC kept their tryst with pole position on the points table intact after goals from Juanan Gonzalez (14’) and skipper Sunil Chhetri (51’) saw the Blues beat NorthEast United 2-1 at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on a Republic Day fixture, in Bengaluru. The win took Albert Roca’s side to 24 points, one ahead of Chennaiyin FC as Bengaluru inched closer to a spot in the play-off stages of the Indian Super League.
While Roca rolled out an almost brand-new squad from the one that made the trip to Bhutan for an AFC Cup game on Tuesday, injuries to key players in midfielder Dimas Delgado (calf) and defender Rahul Bheke (hamstring) saw a little reshuffle in the line-up. John Johnson and Juanan Gonzalez started a rare game together while Lenny Rodrigues joined Erik Paartalu in the midfield. The game also saw Edu Garcia, who was an unused substitute in Mumbai owing to an injury, make a start on the left wing.
The Blues weren’t allowed the comfort of settling down by the visitors and that’s when Roca’s side turned to a weapon they’ve used successfully rather often. Winning a free kick on the left, Gonzalez scored what was only his second goal in a BFC shirt when he smartly flicked Garcia’s take with his head beyond TP Rehenesh to give Bengaluru the lead.
The goal gave Bengaluru the breathing space they were after as the home side began passing the ball around with the kind of fluency that’s become a habit. And just when they looked good for a second, Garcia was guilty of squandering a chance he should have put away with ease when Rodrigues slipped him through in the 36th minute. Having only Rehenesh to get past, the Spaniard inexplicably placed the ball wide.
The miss would soon come to hurt Bengaluru who conceded a penalty in the additional time of the first half. Anticipating a Len Doungel cross, Bose slid in the box only to see the ball catch his arm as referee Om Prakash Thakur pointed to the spot. Marcio Junior’s take was hit with power and beyond Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s lunge to his left to make it 1-1.
Bengaluru needed a quick response in the second half and the man who has so often found one for them, turned up with the answers yet again. A blunder in defence saw Samba Cande and then Nirmal Chettri make a hash in their attempt to deal with a cross from Harmanjot Khabra in the 51st minute. The ball fell to Chhetri whose eighth goal of the season was deftly placed left footer from a tight angle that Rehenesh could only watch roll in.
NorthEast piled on the pressure, with Avram Grant sending on strikers John Mosquera and Helio Pinto in a bid to find a late equalizer. Cross from Doungel and Marcinho were dealt with by Gurpreet, as the Blues rode the tide and saw the game off and completed a double over the Highlanders.
The Blues return to AFC Cup duties next, as they take on Bhutanese side Transport United in the second leg of their preliminary round qualifier, at the Fortress, on the 30th.