Dark horses Delhi ready to take the fight to Bengaluru
Sunday's Indian Super League (ISL) game at Bengaluru's Kanteerava Stadium could be dubbed the new against the old, considering it pits Bengaluru FC in just their second ISL game against Delhi Dynamos, regulars at the playoffs across the last two seasons.
Looking at the team compositions, though, it could well be the old against the new. "They have their supporters and playing at home as big advantages, but their biggest advantage is that they have played as one team for three-four years, and they have prepared for the ISL by playing AFC Cup games," says Delhi and India right-back Pritam Kotal, who was Delhi's second purchase after goalkeeper Albino Gomes at the domestic players' draft, one Delhi were the only team to go into without a single player retained. "But we aren't far behind. There will be a fight, and we will go for it."
Delhi come into the game with a morale-boosting 3-2 win over FC Pune City, a match in which two 20-year-olds impressed for coach Miguel Angel Portugal. "At the first 30 minutes, we were very excited and we were getting tired very fast," says central midfielder Vinit Rai, who says Portugal simply told his team that everything was going according to plan, after a goalless first half. "Our coach just said enjoy the game and let's get a win. It's good to get a point when you are away from home, and fortunately as soon as the second half kicked off, we got an early goal."
That goal was created by Lallianzuala Chhangte, who became the youngest Indian player to assist and score in the same ISL game with Delhi's second goal. "I was trying to do my best for the team. It was a tough match, and we got what we deserved because we worked hard a lot," said Chhangte, who was employed variously as a winger and an attacking midfielder in the match.
The prospect of playing Bengaluru excites the Indian players in Delhi, almost all of whom have played I-League games at the Kanteerava in the past. Kotal has played out some dramatic matches with Mohun Bagan in the past and knows silencing the crowd won't be easy. "The best thing here is that their supporters are very good. When they are down, they increase the intensity of their chants, which is always a great thing. When I have played here for India as well, I have enjoyed some good support," he says.
Rai is looking forward to a contest in the middle of the pitch with his inspiration Sunil Chhetri. "He's a legend of India. The way he keeps himself ready for every game, it's really admirable to see him," he says.
It might just be the second round of games in progress, but an away win has pitched Delhi among potential dark horses for the rest of the season. However, Kotal, who won the league with ATK last year, believes the key to a good season is being consistent. "Last year, our team was always at a certain level. We were neither excellent nor poor in any of the games. We just played at one level. That is what Delhi needs to do, and what our coach tells us," he says. "He also wants us to play passing football. In the last match, we were up 3-1 in the 85th minute and we wanted to run some time down by playing a long ball after a foul, he told us not to do that."
"I don't think Delhi has been discussed (as a favourite) by many people, and that is good in one way, but you have to consider this is a young squad put together," adds Kotal. "They want to put a core team together, and of course ATK is a good team as well, so are Kerala, Pune and the others. But Delhi not being discussed much is a good thing -- we have a point to prove on the field."
They may not find a better canvas than the Kanteerava.