BENGALURU: Since switching to ISL, Bengaluru FC have been heavily reliant on Erik Paartalu's defensive solidity, physicality and at times a game-changing goal. But head coach Carles Cuadrat may have to flesh out a few contingencies this season.
That Paartalu has featured in Bengaluru's 76 per cent games in the last two seasons and averaged 78 minutes in each is a testimony to his coach's trust. However, the Australian mid-fielder has spent eight months without competitive football after suffering an injury in February. Paartalu has found it difficult to keep himself fit, with no continental commitments for Bengaluru and Super Cup taking place before ISL.
"It has been difficult to deal with the off-season," said Paartalu. "I think everybody just tried to follow their own training programme to keep fit and not gain any weight. So the whole off-season was reinventing, re-motivating myself to train in a certain way. AFC Cup helped us in the last couple of years. It will be interesting to see if this has any impact on us. But the way we have been playing and training, it feels like normal again."
In addition, the lack of a pre-season tour abroad has also reduced quality game-time for Paartalu and his mates. Instead, Bengaluru had to depend on I-League clubs to play friendly games at JSW Inspire Institute of Sport (Ballari). Friendlies or not, Paartalu was keen on playing matches to get back to his best.
"A tour abroad definitely gives you good quality opponents and the competition you seek before a season. You also get to learn something there. But what we got in Ballari was fantastic. The facilities were brilliant. I think the management and coaching staff have done a very good job of programming a good pre-season. To be honest, I-League oppositions always give you a good run, and that helped us become a unit again."
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While he regains fitness, the 33-year-old knows it won't be that easy to get into Bengaluru's XI this time. With Raphael Augusto and Eugeneson Lyngdoh strengthening the midfield - besides Spaniard Dimas Delgado - the coach will have multiple options to choose from. Paartalu will also be fighting against youngster Suresh Singh Wangjam for a place, despite a 78 per cent pass-accuracy over the last two seasons.
"The motivation has to step up a notch for sure. When you see a signing like Raphael, you don't get worried about your place but get excited about playing with him. Certainly, it makes it very difficult for three good foreigners to fit into a team. It will be a difficult job for the coach but he is really happy about this. Overall, I am really looking forward to the season."
Bengaluru will begin their title defence against NorthEast United FC at Sree Kanteerava Stadium on October 21.