Carles Cuadrat has made it home, or at least the place he will be calling home for the next six months or so.
Nine months after losing in that semifinal against ATK FC, who would eventually go on to lift the Indian Super League (ISL) title for a record third time, the Bengaluru FC head coach is back with his team in Goa for his fifth season with the club. But that defeat is still fresh on his mind.
"The team is hurt within after failing to win the trophy last year," the Spaniard tells The Bridge. "In the semifinal we scored to go up 0-2 on a corner at ATK, which the referee annulled for a non-existent off-side. Dimas (Delgado) hit the post after a free kick that Sunil (Chhetri) shot with 1-1. (Kevaughn) Frater missed the possibility of making it 2-2 when he was alone against the goalkeeper with 15 minutes remaining that would have forced ATK to score 2 goals. Juanan had a header from the area that their goalkeeper saved in a great intervention.
"When you see the possibility so close of being able to reach the final for the third consecutive season and it escapes you in the last 10 minutes, the only thing you want is for the ball to start rolling again and to be able to show the whole world that you, as a team, deserved to be there."
But for that, Cuadrat and his men have had to wait. The coronavirus pandemic meant that the campaign would start late and also, that the ISL would be organised in a very different manner — in a centralised venue, within a secure bubble, away from the rest of the world.
The 52-year-old head coach, who reached Goa with the rest of his coaching staff a couple of weeks back, spent the mandatory quarantine period confined to his room. However, as a post on Bengaluru FC's social media accounts would suggest, he was wasting no time.
"In the football industry, there is always work to be done," he says. "Week in, week out you are preparing for training sessions and games — sometimes two games in quick succession. So, being able to have a few days without leaving the room allows you to catch up with all these tasks that you sometimes find difficult to finish on an everyday basis, like watch matches, study rivals, scout players, give interviews, share my knowledge in the capacity of a teacher with some courses that I have been giving during these COVID times.
"Of course, we are all raring to step on a football pitch again, but we are always making the most of this confinement and working on the other aspects of football that are equally important."
Indeed, the break gave Cuadrat an opportunity to take stock. Bengaluru FC's Indian contingent had already begun their pre-season preparations at the Indian Institute of Sport (IIS) in Bellary before making the trip to Goa and the Head Coach used the quarantine period to catch up with all the training sessions.
"The Indian contingent is doing very well," he says. "I had the opportunity to see the video of the game between our players on the last day at Bellary and I can say that the boys are in excellent physical shape. I am happy with the way we have gone about meeting the deadlines we had prepared for the pre-season, we are achieving the objectives we wanted.
"I am happy with the speed we have had with the Indian players to start training so early, and how professional and strict with weight and physical work our foreign players have been during their time off. Some of them have even arrived with a lower fat percentage than they had last season, and this after not having competed for 7 months! That shows the commitment they have with their work and the desire they have to be at a good level this season.
"They will be ready for our first game. Now, we will add the work of foreign players, who for reasons with obtaining their visas, could not come before. But we have a big advantage in that the players of the first team already know each other well from previous seasons and that there has been a continuity with our tactical concepts and patterns of play."
Cuadrat further goes on to explain why the Blues started training in Bellary, unlike the other teams. "We are facing a competitive year, one that is completely different from the previous ones. The psychological component is going to be fundamental during this season, and for me, it was important that the players did not fall into routine and boredom too quickly.
"In that sense, changing hotels, changing training camps, changing gymnasiums, changing food, makes the player have to adapt and get a much-needed distraction before the first league game. To do two months of pre-season in the same place is very different than doing it at two places.
"In the past seasons, we had divided our pre-season between Spain and Bellary, and we had done very well, and we decided to take advantage of the fantastic facilities that the JSW group has in Bellary, yet again. A good number of Olympic athletes are trained there, and therefore, it has adequate equipment that allows us to work 24 hours a day and feel at home."
Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri training at IIS Bellary (Source: BFC Media)
Talking about the past seasons, Cuadrat's records speak for themselves. In his maiden season as Bengaluru FC head coach, the team not only finished at the top of the table but went on to clinch the ISL title. Last year, the performances did not match with the expectations and yet, the Blues managed to make it to the playoffs.
Under him, Bengaluru had a record 11-match unbeaten streak in 2018-19 which included a record six-match winning run. Of the 41 matches he has taken charge, Cuadrat has won 21 while drawing 10 and losing 10, averaging 1.56 points per game.
And yet, questions were raised as, for the first time since their inception in 2014, Bengaluru remained trophyless through 2019-20. One of the major questions being asked was if the team lacked the adequate firepower in attack to go on and win a silverware. The departure of Miku meant that the Blues had lost a 20-goal-a-season striker, someone they missed dearly.
This season though, the club management has left no stone unturned when it comes to recruitments — Brazilian attacker Cleiton Silva, a record scorer in Thailand's top flight, Kristian Opseth, a proven goal-scorer who is also good at link-up play, and Fran Gonzalez, a defensive player with an appetite for goals and assists, were brought in during the summer transfer window.
Cleiton Silva, a record scorer in Thailand (Source: BFC Media)
Overall, Cuadrat seems to be satisfied with his squad. "I think we have the most balanced squad of all the seasons that I have managed, with varied options in all eleven positions," he asserts.
"The club has made an effort to strengthen our strike force, which was something that cost us last year. Even so, with few goals from our forwards, the work of the players and their tactical awareness allowed the team to reach the semifinal, only to miss out on the final by a single goal.
"These reinforcements make us think that we now have up to 4 players in the squad with a good relationship with the opposing goal, such as Sunil (Chhetri), Cleiton, Opseth and (Deshorn) Brown. Even Fran showed good ability against the opposite goal with his 10 goals last season in I-League. I have the belief that we can improve together that important part of the game, without diminishing our excellent numbers in defence with 11 clean sheets and fewest goals conceded last season."
"In our pre-season conversations, players and staff, we have made our goal for this year very clear. We want to be in the final again. We want to raise the trophy again," he concludes.
Bengaluru FC begin their campaign against last season's league toppers FC Goa on November 22. If things fall into place, they may very well go all the way but only time will tell.