Taking one for the team

Many Cited Complacency As The Reason Behind The Blues’ Defeat To Chennaiyin On The Road, But Carles Cuadrat Is A Firm Believer In Dynamics And Tough Decisions, Even If They Mean A Little Stutter Here And A Stumble There…

The buzz on the microphones had been quelled and two small light towers were at their brightest best, but Carles Cuadrat’s aircraft had been delayed at boarding, and then further in taxying. Only six journalists remained at the pre-match press conference when he arrived from Bengaluru, three hours past schedule. There was a sincere apology from the table and then a confession to us later; that the calculations had been touch-and-go. But in the end, he made it.

His boys took a flight that departed six hours later, but Cuadrat would reach the team hotel after them. Exhausted and famished, the squad proceeded to the dining hall, where dinner was served. As the spoons and forks collided with porcelain across the tables, we turned to see the boss, square-jawed, with his eyes fixated on the television screen. Jamshedpur played Mumbai, and the boss had his notepad at the ready.

Twenty-six points separated the Blues from their opposition ahead of kick-off, but those weren’t numbers that had played a part in any of Cuadrat’s computations. Leaving Udanta Singh, Dimas Delgado and Albert Serran behind wasn’t a decision meant to undermine the opposition. The minutes they had clocked during the course of the season, and the need to preserve them ahead of what was to be a home stretch, played maximum significance. As the season wears on, the big picture only gets bigger.

The Blues warmed up to Spanish music at the JN Stadium, and the battle had already kicked off in the stands. There were loud, animated discussions between two tiers, where League table positions and points were being conveyed to each other. Closer to kick-off, we heard lesser from the hosts and have reason to believe that a trophy-count is what played its part in the silence.

Luisma Villa had forty-five first-half minutes in him and the Spaniard’s love for the ball was evident in the way he kept asking for it the moment it left his laces. The former Santander man landed in the country with the reputation of sniper-like accuracy when it comes to delivering set-pieces, and he put his wares out in the market the first chance he got. Standing over a Bengaluru corner in the 21st minute, Luisma delicately floated the ball in, till it cut flight and dropped dead for Xisco to meet sweetly on the volley. It wasn’t extraordinary. It was beautiful.

But the night wouldn’t be as much about aesthetics as it would be about smash-and-grab moments. CK Vineeth, who the traveling Blues wouldn’t hold back their songs for, rolled a pass that was meant for Jeje Lalpekhlua. Instead it was Vineeth’s old accomplice and forever-mate, Nishu Kumar who would stick a leg out and get the ball. In sensing he could bring it under control and play out of the back, Nishu stumbled. It was all Jeje would need.

For thirty minutes and two more, Bengaluru were calling the shots. It sure wasn’t a period of relentless bombing, but it looked like getting there. The siege was being laid. Miku, making his first start in over two months, flashed inches wide with a chance that Xisco created. You could tell that the hitman was dusting the rust off. He needs time, and time was what he was taking. On another day, and with an ankle that didn’t have to be subject to needle pokes consistently, that ball was in the back of the net.

You could be down in the dumps, but few things have the ability to lift you up like a goal. He isn’t the tallest on the pitch, but Gregory Nelson rose as much as was needed to nod in a cross from the right, minutes before half-time. Two-nil and it was Kerala all over again.

We don’t have access to the dressing room at half-time but we wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that intensity was being mixed with the saline-laden liquids for the team to gulp down. The triangles, switches, flicks and chips – they were all there. The instinct to seek and destroy, on both ends of the pitch – that was what seemed visibly missing.

The sizeable number of Bengaluru fans, who made most of the five-hour drive between the cities to remind all and sundry about not understanding what it is to have Sunil Chhetri, were validated by the man, just short of the hour mark. Subject to chants of ‘dolphin’ by the home support for a lot of the first half, the Bengaluru captain embraced the jibe and turned up with a dive that would have done the mammal proud.

In a reminder of why every defender should have a bit of Chhetri’s shirt in their hands when he’s in the box, the striker slipped between the last line of defence and flung himself to meet Xisco’s cross with his head on the bounce and send it past Karanjit. The Chennaiyin pleas for help from the assistant’s flag were more out of guilt than justice. There was enough time and then some more, for a revival. Or so we thought.

The skipper and Kean Lewis raced against each other for a quick throw in. Kean had earlier been hacked down by Nelson on the touchline in a tackle that we thought would need a stretcher, but the winger brushed himself off and ran for the take. We’ve lost count of the number of times the Blues have turned a game on its head in a matter of minutes. On Saturday, even thirty-three wouldn’t be enough.

The battle was lost. But the war remained in sight. With the scoreboard having made its final movements for the night, Nishu and Xisco found solace on the iceboxes. Cuadrat, meanwhile, made his way into the opposition camp where Zohmingliana Ralte hobbled onto the pitch with support from a teammate. The Mizo defender had played only a handful of games in his time with the Blues, but the boss left the troubles of defeat to be inferenced later, as he offered a word of support.

A year ago, the Blues ended their League campaign with a total of 40 points; a tally that had never been reached. The joy would soon count for nothing two weeks later. Leaving his talismanic winger, an orchestrator and one half of his defensive duo out of a clash against the club’s rivals from next door was a pill, with emotion as its key ingredient, that his supporters and the media had found tough to swallow. The Indian Super League is a marathon that ends with a dart, and the boss knows that all too well.

The microphone and lights from the day before were in place, as Cuadrat made his way to the post-match conference. “I have to take decisions. Some of my players have come back from the AFC Asian Cup and have played over two thousand minutes of football this season. Albert and Dimas give us so much, I have to take their age into consideration and preserve them. Believe me, we are a very humble team. Last season, with 30 points we were in the playoffs and as of now we have 31 points. Yes, we have dropped some in the last few games, but I think even other teams will. We have to manage this situation. For us, it was not a dramatic moment to lose this game.”

They say good magicians deal with requests for an encore of a trick by promising to show one that’s even better. The stage will soon be the grandest, the audience the biggest and the trick – we’re hoping – the best. If it is a rabbit that comes out of the hat, be assured it will look to make a dart past the ribbon.