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After bad year for Bengaluru FC, Sunil Chhetri seeks redemption in AFC Cup 2021

Sunil Chhetri reached the 100-goal mark for the club, but it was still a disappointing season for BFC. Arjun Singh / Sportzpics for ISL

"I expect a reaction," says Sunil Chhetri. "And it starts with [every] individual."

Chhetri's Bengaluru FC had their worst domestic season since inception last time around, limping home at seventh in the 2020-21 edition of the Indian Super League with just 22 points in 20, a good nine points short of the playoff places and 18 off the top. Long-time coach Carles Cuadrat was sacked mid-way through, and the performances were as flat as the results.

Chhetri and his team's attempts to find their way back up starts with the AFC Cup.

They face Nepal Army on April 14, and if they win that match, face the winners of Abahani Limited Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Club Eagles (Maldives). Win that, and the AFC Cup 2021 group stages await them.

BFC are in the tournament only due to a unique occurrence. The team that was meant to go, 2019-20 ISL winners (and league stage runners-up) ATK, joined forces with Mohun Bagan (who were through to the AFC Cup group stages as I-League champions) last season to leave a spot open. Which went to third place BFC.

That third-place finish is a distant memory for Chhetri. Last season's wounds, though, are fresh.

"When you lose a game, you start pointing fingers at each other, but the thing is, we were so bad, and every one of us were so bad that there's no pointing fingers at anyone," he says. "I might be biased, but apart from Cleiton [Silva], Suresh [Singh], and a few young ones, we all were bad. Like proper bad. There is no scope for me to say, 'Udanta, you were bad', because he would say, 'Chhetri bhai, you were equally bad'."

Chhetri had eight goals in 20 games and was BFC's top scorer (and the top-scoring Indian in the league, again). Silva had seven goals. No one else had more than two.

"Everyone has to work hard on themselves. The good thing is that we were so bad that we have so much space to improve. And we know we can do it," he says. "After all, it's the same Udanta who terrorised the ISL when we lost in the final [the 2017-18 season]. It's the same Ashique who can do so much better. It's the same old me who can do so much better."

It didn't help, he says, that all of them had dips simultaneously. "What happens is that when one guy is having a bad day, the rest can bail him out. That's how good teams are. Last year what happened was that we all went down at the same time. The coach got sacked in between, it was a big turmoil, it is not easy and heads started dropping and mistakes started happening and chances were missed... and that wasn't good."

The little things kept adding up, he says, to make for an atmosphere that wasn't the best. With that in mind, he feels Marco Pezzaiuoli's introduction as the new coach has breathed new life into the team.

Pezzaiuoli is a devotee of the Ralf Rangnick school of gegenpressing high-intensity football, and has already made it clear that he's not going to play kick-and-rush football.

Chhetri is completely onboard. "When you get a coach who has so much clarity, so much experience, it really helps. I've always said this, the coach in our sport -- if he has clarity as to what he wants, and if he is technically good, that's a big boost to our team."

"What a new manager does is, there is no prejudice, no previous baggage of what one can do and cannot. He just sees whatever is there in training and he's going to make his mind up."

He says this is a message he, and other senior players like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, have tried to drive into the youngsters in the squad. It's important, he says, because of the circumstances which led to so many playing last season. "You don't want a youngster to feel so much of a burden, thinking, 'the club was winning trophies before and suddenly when we started playing [the club is losing]'. That can be detrimental to their progress."

He says training has been very intense, and that it will take the team a while to adjust fully to the high pressing style of Pezzaiuoli. "It's not about what you are used to," he says when asked about how the team is adapting to the change. "It's what the coach wants. If you want to be in the team, and you want to improve, you'll do it. Otherwise, you are out. It's as simple as that."

Chhetri himself has been back at full training for just about a week. A little while after ISL 2020-21 ended, Chhetri tested positive for COVID-19, and it had been a struggle.

"Everyone should take COVID very seriously. The first five days, I was struggling immensely," he says. "When you haven't got COVID, and you think about it and you think, 'it'll be fine, I'm a fit person, nothing will happen', but I really struggled. I haven't felt that kind of physical pain ever in my life. It was brutal. I ask everyone to take care of themselves, this is not something to mess with or take [lightly]."

Now, working his way back to full fitness, he's ready to start on the road of [BFC's] redemption.

"Right now it's more about grasping what the coach wants from us. Not too much emphasis on how the opponent is going to play, it's more about what he wants us to do," he says. "It's exciting to have the fresh ideas that he has gotten and there's a lot of pressing, which I enjoy. Everyone is giving more than 100% and there's a lot of competition for places."

"Now," he laughs, "I hope I make the cut."