Ashley Westwood: The man who masterminded Bengaluru’s ascent
If Johor Darul Ta'zim want to increase their chances of defeating Bengaluru in the semi-final of the AFC Cup – the first leg of which takes place on Wednesday – then coach Mario Gomez could do worse than call Ashley Westwood. This is the man who built the Indian club into the most successful in South Asia.
The Englishman, recently just turned 40, was Bengaluru's first ever head coach, arriving in India in 2013 as the club came into existence. In his first three seasons, he delivered two Indian league titles and a runners-up spot. The most amazing of hat-tricks was denied with almost the last kick of the 2014-15 season. It was an almost perfect spell.
Westwood was in charge of the Blues for their group games against JDT earlier this year but stepped down from his post in May after steering the club through to the last eight of the AFC Cup. Recently, the former Blackburn Rovers assistant who has been linked of late with another Malaysia Super League club Selangor, has been reporting on the tournament for television.
The two teams are not unfamiliar with each other though there have been changes lately. In March, JDT won 1-0 in India thanks to a Safiq Rahim strike and in the final game of the group, with both teams already safely in the knockout stage, the Malaysia Super League champions, took a 3-0 victory.
“The last time, we were both through to the second round,” Westwood told FourFourTwo. “And then we had a league fixtures a few days later and we wanted to rest players. Only once did we go at it hammer and tongs and we lost 1-0.”
Westwood, a former Manchester United trainee who had lengthier playing stints with Crewe Alexandra and Sheffield Wednesday, admits that the defending champions are favourites to reach the final once again.
“JDT have quality, we all know that,” Westwood said, paying tribute to the big overseas stars such as Marcos Antonio at the back and strikers Juan Martin Lucero and Pereyra Diaz. “They have talented foreign players such as their Brazilian defender and the two Argentine attackers are also dangerous.
“They also have the best Malaysian players and they have Safiq [Rahim] who is as good a midfielder and you will find in the AFC Cup.”
JDT are the favourites going into the two-legged clash. After all, the Malaysians are defending champions and have defeated Bengaluru twice this season already.
This kind of opposition is a step up from the Indian leagues. I don't want to be disrespectful to India as there is real quality there
Westwood is the first to admit that such is the case, but he warned the Southern Tigers that they cannot afford to be complacent.
“This kind of opposition is a step up from the Indian leagues. I don't want to be disrespectful to India as there is real quality there.
“We all know that in football anything can happen but any game can change in a second. In football, anything can happen. It could be down to a referee decision, a bad tackle or a red card and it all changes.”
Bengaluru are fresh from knocking out Tampines Rovers in the quarter-final, depriving Malaysia and Singapore of an AFC Cup derby.
They are also generally fresh – and this might prove to be the difference between both sides, Westwood shared.
“Bengaluru are just into the new season and have had a few pre-season friendlies. They are still adjusting to a new coach and new surroundings and are not yet firing on full cylinders. There will be opportunities for both teams. The new coach and new system need time and they will learn a lot from these games.”
That new coach in question is Albert Roca, a former assistant at Barcelona and Galatasaray.
But if fans are looking for the attractive football synonymous with the Catalans giants, it might be a while yet before they witness it.
“If you look at the statistics when I was coach, we would play 550 passes a game but in the first game, he has adopted a more direct system but perhaps this is because he has not got time to get his methods over.”
Westwood is unsure how his successor will approach the game but he knows how he would play against the holders.
“Make sure you defend well, don't make mistakes, press high with high energy. Try and win the ball high up the pitch and attack them. Commitment and desire will be crucial,” he said.
And what about the stars?
“There should be no man-marking for Safiq, it will be collective pressing, the nearest man presses. It will be tough – the long-grass, the humidity make it difficult and, of course, JDT are the champions but this is the kind of test that football is all about.”
Indian football is still trying to find its way in Asia and winning a trophy or reaching a final would be a big deal.
Defeating Tampines Rovers, one of the biggest teams in South-east Asian football with stars such as Jermaine Pennant on their books, was a feather in the cap for Bengaluru, the I-League and JSW Group, the owners of the club who made their money in steel and other fields.
And Westwood is hoping Bengaluru continues to lead the way for India, starting with the game against JDT on Wednesday.
“The AFC Cup is huge. The owner has invested in the club and wants to put Indian football on the map,” he said.
“Just to get to the semi-finals is success and gives recognition to Indian football and Indian players and that is why the club was formed. It will be tough to beat JDT but it is not impossible.”
Photos: Bengaluru FC