On Sunday In Delhi, The Blues Fought Back From A Goal Down, Went On To Take A Lead And Then Self-Combusted In A Matter Of Minutes To Go Back With No Points, But Plenty Of Notes…
The winter jackets from the trip to Bhutan were out once again as Carles Cuadrat stepped down from the team bus, with the boys in tow, and into the training facility outside the JLN Stadium, a day before they were to face the Dynamos. Pre-match training was underway and the mobile goalpost had been placed 30 yards from the static one. Green and orange bibs were thrown around and a team that had Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in goal was up against one with young Edmund Lalrindika in attack. Six-a-side games had an added element of competition and often needed regular intervention in a bid to broker peace, as Cuadrat confessed in a pre-match press conference not too long ago. But it wasn’t a tough tackle or a wrong call that had led to the squabble on Saturday.
Gerard Zaragoza rolled the ball on the turf which was the green light for battle and Lalrindika took just one touch, before sending an impressive effort into the top corner past Gurpreet. The Spanish love their passes and the build up to every goal has been savoured since the time Albert Roca landed in Bengaluru three years ago. On this occasion, there was none. It was a smash-and-grab, which a youngster had enjoyed, that drew wild arguments from his opposition. Within a moment, all eyes turned to the boss, who stood at the other end of the field. His word was law; ‘It’s a goal’ came the verdict. The collective murmurs were not subtle by any means,
Kean Lewis, wearing the same bib as Edmund, waved Sunil Chhetri off, as a third team made its way onto the pitch. When the cones and markers were picked up later that morning, Cuadrat huddled his Blues together and pointed to the youngest player on his team. “You have to take your chances; Edmund scored with the first opportunity that he got and it was a good goal. I want us to put the ball in the back of the net every chance we get.”
Fast forward thirty six hours, the Blues made their way out of the team bus once again, this time on to battle. Their opposition were already on the field when Bengaluru, led by Dimas Delgado, got down to the pre-match warm up routine. In the vast expanse of the JLN Stadium, the sound of every instruction handed out and every ball that was kicked, echoed. Chhetri was part of the smaller group who were at the rondo, as Boithang Haokip took his place on the team-sheet.
An early chance had gone abegging when Udanta Singh rolled a cut back into Miku’s stride. Not even a minute had passed. On another day, the Venezuelan would shake the net, and race down the touchline with his hands to his head. The shot was miscued as it rolled along the line past an onlooking Francisco Dorronsoro. The Dynamos ’keeper had never been happier to have the ball thrown to him from the outside.
It didn’t take long for the Blues to rue that effort. Gurpreet pushed a cross from Nandhakumar and Ulises Davila capitalized to slot home. But for the first time in three games, the Blues’ fightback began before the break. Rahul Bheke, with the ball at his feet, held on to a pass for what seemed like forever, before slipping Xisco through. The Spaniard made up for the delay, shifting his body to send a first-time cross that Dorronsoro tipped away. It was Bengaluru’s turn to profit, with Boithang sending a rasping volley into the roof of the net. He had scored on his first start of the campaign, but there was no run down the touchline or slide on the turf. The boy from Kangpokpi would later tell us that he had forgotten that a goal had to be followed by a celebration. It takes a lot to amaze Chhetri, but he couldn’t help himself from standing up raising his eyebrows and shaking his head while mouthing “what a goal, what a goal!” to strength and conditioning coach, Mikel Guillen who was seated beside him.
The Blues bench had formed a queue as they began warm ups behind the dugout. The gaze was fixed on the ground as the Dynamo Ultras sang for Kean, a member of their squad from two years ago. But he wasn’t the one with roots in the capital who ran onto the pitch fifteen minutes later. The stadium came alive from all corners as Chhetri, who has home in Dwarka, pulled off his bib.
Dimas had come over with the armband, but the skipper wasn’t having it; he wanted the points instead. Twelve minutes later, Chhetri crept back into an onside position before taking a pass from Xisco in his stride. The Spaniard’s ball was weighted perfectly, but the trajectory of the man who had collected it, wasn’t one that seemed to have its sight on goal. Running clear, Chhetri lifted his head once and then once again, waiting for Miku to arrive. In waiting for the Venezuelan to arrive, Chhetri kept striding towards goal with the ball, till Rana Gharami panicked and poked it into his own net to give the Blues the lead.
Cuadrat’s men were ahead for the first time in three games. But not all joys last long. Juanan and Dimas had exchanged high-fives with Daniel Lalhlimpuia, who had quietly made his way into the Delhi eleven ahead of the second half. Chhetri had always looked out for Lalhlimpuia during the latter’s time at Bengaluru, helping the youngster hone the art of finishing. In an ode that the Bengaluru striker could have done without, Lalhlimpuia turned up with a goal to cancel out Chhetri’s finish and then one more to steal all points. Gurpreet was beaten in ways he wished he wouldn’t have been. But while the Blues’ ’keeper can’t get any taller, he keeps growing in maturity to not let the lapses ground him down. “I’ve dusted it off and moved on. We have bigger tests ahead,” he’d tell us later.
“Daniel is a fantastic professional and a good boy. I don’t know if he was extra-motivated because he was playing against us, but this happens in football. We saw Robin Singh scoring against us for East Bengal at the Kanteerava a few years ago,” Carles would say to the press following the full-time whistle.
Back in his dressing room, the huddle stood silent as the boss addressed his boys. After his speech, Cuadrat, in a first, asked if any of his players had anything to add. Every eye turned to another as one man stepped forward. With his hair strapped back in a band, he had missed his chance for an opener on the field, but he wasn’t going to let go of an opportunity to have in on the closing statement. “All of us need to reset, and it begins with me. We have to learn from what has happened in the last two games, but we must also forget it, and move forward.”
Chances. Bengaluru didn’t take their chances on the night. Then they let a chance to close the game, slip. But the chance to atone for the follies, blips and stutters will soon arrive, and this set of warriors will do everything to make the most of it.