Unbeaten At Home And Needing Three Points Against A Side That Hadn’t Won In Months, Few Would Have Thought That Wednesday Would Throw A Fair Fight…
It was an inaudible mumble that was definitely not helped by a cold, but no one in the room dared to interrupt and beg the customary pardon. Then Chhetri lifted his face from the cavity of the table, looked at every face of the three-man audience before going, “bohot ho gaya, goal maarna hai aaj”. The desire to let out a collective sigh of relief was bursting at the seams, but was commendably held back till the captain sank his face back in.
At the pre-game press conference, Carles Cuadrat, yet again, opted for a firm ‘no’ over the ambiguous Indian nod when asked whether his captain’s goal-drought had the Bengaluru coach doubting the comfort of his bed. As for the fans, the only question they were asking is one they never seem to want the answer to. Kerala Blasters were coming to the Kanteerava and bookmakers weren’t using form or the League table to roll out odds. They would have felt a smug sense of vindication at half-time.
A combination of luxury, circumstance and adventure saw the boss start Kean Lewis at the right in defence. Meanwhile, nineteen-year-old Edmund Lalrindika’s baptism into the first team was complete when he stood for a team photograph with Chhetri’s arm around his shoulder. We haven’t yet asked the boy, but we have every reason to believe that awe was the decisive factor in Edmund choosing to keep his hands on his knees in what’s a picture that will soon adorn his wall. Nishu Kumar was making a return after having hobbled out in the first half against ATK at home last December.
But the one name that was on everyone’s lips at the Kanteerava Stadium on Wednesday was that of a Venezuelan who had quietly made his way into the squad again. The stadium emcee, whose usual practice was to take his time with the first eleven then rush with the bench, made it a point to stop and have the galleries take note of the hitman’s return.
Fluent starts and clinical finishes with a fair amount of soldiering on in between has been how Bengaluru have gone about things this season. But Wednesday didn’t begin like it should have. Slavisa Stojanovic placed the ball on the spot in the 16th minute. Lewis, in his attempt to get rid of Mohammad Rakip’s cross into the box, endured what you would call a swing and miss. As luck would have it, the ball caught the Bengaluru man’s arm on the bounce. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had to pick a side for his dive, but found the time to run and console Lewis, who Harmanjot Khabra already had in an embrace. The chance to take the lead at the Fortress was too much of an incentive to squander. Stojanovic didn’t need explaining. Then, in a strange occurrence, the place erupted as one. Those in yellow shouted in delirium, the rest, to prevent shoulders from dropping.
The Afterthought attempts to be honest in its reviews, which is why we won’t dither from singling out Courage Pekuson’s curling finish from thirty yards out in the 40th minute, as one of the finest we’ve seen at our home. Ambling till he met a rolling cut-back from Len Doungel, the Ghanaian scored a goal that R1 + circles on a PlayStation are made of.
The disadvantage had doubled and the tip of the mountain seemed higher than before for Cuadrat’s men, but that didn’t stop his Blue army that bellowed from above. We’d seen it all before. Thousands in support, as players in blue and red covered every blade of grass in their quest to climb the said mountain. But Wednesday at the Fortress was more than just about the comeback.
The long walk to the dressing room takes two out of the fifteen minutes that Cuadrat has to address his team at the break. And in the thirteen that remain, he concocts the elaborate plan that aims to affect the outcome. This time though, it wasn’t just the players who paid heed.
With forty-five minutes left, the boss turned to his bench. Xisco Hernandez had missed training on more than a few occasions after an unforgiving challenge in Mumbai left him writhing in the dugout and Rahul Bheke had only returned from rituals that followed his father’s passing in the same city.
Then all of a sudden, with minute fifty on the clock and the ball making no significant movement, the Fortress came alive. There was movement in the dugout and Miku had his hair strapped back in a white band. The bib hadn’t come off yet, and his swagger was towards a warm up routine, but the excitement in the stands was surreal. Eight minutes later, he made the trip back to his chair in the dugout. Then the shin-pads were tucked in and bib was pulled off; the pistols were unholstered. It was gladiatorial.
It took just ten minutes after his arrival for the first goal, and it would be harsh to say that the Blues’ number 7 played no part. Miku’s presence garnered attention from both Nemanja Lakic-Pesic and Pritam Singh, as Udanta managed to make his way around untraced, sending a diving header into the back of the net. There were no elaborate celebrations as returning to the halfway line was top on the list of priorities.
Sensing a second, Cuadrat’s Blues kept their foot on the pedal as Kerala went for the handbrakes at every turn. Throw-in positions were checked and double-checked with officials, free-kick routines were more elaborate than they had ever been for the visitors and right-backs were in charge of left-sided corners for some reason. Every trick in the book was employed, but the Blues would have none of it. Dimas Delgado lifted Kerala players onto stretchers that had been summoned with little reason, and goalkeeper coach Javi Pinillos raced to every loose ball that made its way off the pitch. A goal had to be found, and it wasn’t just the players who were in search of it.
Miku pranced around the box, flanked by Udanta and Chhetri as Paartalu and Dimas pushed forward from midfield. While it was the attack that had to make all the noise, the Blues’ backline had the job of keeping things quiet at the other end. Bheke had towered his way to winning every aerial duel that came as a result of the long punts from the Kerala defenders. Over the weekend, he had to play the role of a dutiful son and on Wednesday, he wore an armour in battle. Ten thousand Blues’ faithful heaved a sigh of relief as a rare second-half attempt from Stojanovic cannoned back into play off the crossbar, but few would have noticed Bheke diving in face-first to force the shot.
The Blues had scored five of their seven goals against Kerala after the eighty-minute mark and they needed one more of those to restore parity. With ten minutes left on the clock, the time had come. Cuadrat turned to the stands once again, with his jacket hugging his seat in the dugout, and the arms were in the air. The Fortress brought the fight.
There’s something about the skipper and milestones. Sean Rooney had pipped him to scoring the club’s first goal at home, and Doungel’s strike against DSK Shivajians in February of 2016 was the club’s 50th at the Fortress. Then, when Rahul Bheke nodded home past FC Istiklol, Bengaluru had their 100th goal in the city. For a man who had outscored every other player for five years on the trot, a strike that claimed a milestone had eluded him, until Wednesday.
Harmanjot Khabra isn’t known for is his tricks or flicks, but with the ball rolling out of play, the midfielder made his claim for the number on his shirt with a backheel for the ages. He watched with his elbow perched on the LED board as Udanta lifted a cross with a question, into a dangerous area; and Chhetri was the answer. There was an equalizer, a club milestone and the chance to break a duck up for grabs. As Paul Masefield proclaimed through his Coles Microphone moments later, the hour had come, and with it, the man.
No stretch would have stopped the skipper’s header from hitting the back of the net, and before he made his way to the halfway line for the restart, Chhetri had the small matter of gratitude to show. Udanta joined the West Block in celebration, and turned to see the skipper leading with his hand raised in a five. It was a moment that the cameras captured in slow motion, before Chhetri sprinted back in position. His drought was over, but there was a game to be won.
Reinforcements had to be sent in. Bengaluru had their tails up, and Kerala brought on Cyril Kali and Nikola Krcmarevic to join those at the back in a bid to avoid the obvious. The whistle blew at 2-2 and while the Fortress had more than enough reason to celebrate the fightback, the undertone of despair at missing out on the winner was evident. The Blues made their way to a West Block that praised the spirit that was shown, but the boss left the air to be punched for later. The stands would have none of it, as chants of ‘Carles Cuadrat’ echoed around, only for the Spaniard to turn around, en route to the dressing room, and have a go with his customary move.
Following a broadcast interview and a post-match press conference, the boss had time at his mercy in the dressing room, with his boys ready for the road once again. If the choice was his, he’d have invited the stands in there. Lalrindika was congratulated on making his first start and the importance of the point was laid out, flat and bare. But in the midst of everything that was said after the boys circled up for his speech and before the skipper yelling out the numbers one, two and three in the huddle, we picked out the boss’ best quote and threw it into the headline.
‘It’s called a Fortress for a reason.’