No slip between the Cup and the lip

It’s Our Time To Make A Move. It’s Our Time To Make Amends. It’s Our Time To Break The Rules. Let’s Begin. – Renegades, X Ambassadors

There wasn’t anyone clad in black robes with a bell, crying ‘shame’ in a monotone. But the boys swear they felt like it, walking off the stage at the Fortress a year ago on a strange, strange night in March. The brave ones managed half a smile, there were those whose emotions had betrayed them, and a few made no effort to kill a tear before it raced down their faces. The silver medals – a reminder of falling short – had only just begun to dangle from their necks, when the boys – one by one – swiftly pulled it off. They didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

Dimas Delgado had tearfully limped out with an injury in the first half of last season’s final against Chennaiyin. Then to have insult blended with his woes, the Spaniard watched helplessly from the side-lines as his comrades conceded three times. Bengaluru FC’s almost-perfect season spiraled out of control in a matter of minutes.

It was one night of sorrow. But it was followed by three hundred and sixty-three days of relentless grinding. “What’s gone, is gone. Let’s make sure we are ready for the next battle.” The message, typed over a picture of the skipper’s sweat-laden face, was on his social media platforms the next morning. It may have seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to defeat. But the hunt had truly begun. Just that there were no more stories on Instagram to suggest it.

Meanwhile, miles away in Barcelona, Carles Cuadrat was making sure his knee got all the attention it needed. Even the view of the majestic La Sagrada Familia across his home didn’t seem to ease the trouble.

Assistant to Albert Roca then, Cuadrat had to painfully part ways with the club in December. The memory is distinct. No sooner had the bus rolled into the entrance of the team hotel from the airport in Pune, a cab had to be summoned. Cuadrat, his knee massively swollen, didn’t even make it to the lobby. It was an ongoing battle – one in which his leg had the final say. With his arms around a couple of the staff, he slid into a car that took him back to the airport. The season gone by was a year of despair. For some, mentally. For some, physically. And for some, both. Let’s not even begin with Rahul Bheke.

The shot at redemption isn’t a thing of chance. But for it to arrive on the very same day? We’ll give that to the stars.

The pre-game meeting on matchday was due in an hour and work on the presentation was taking place in Room 3148, when analyst Alwin Lawrence let out a string of cuss words. You could tell it was serious from the way he spaced out the profanities. His trusted laptop had given way. Everything the boys needed to see one last time, was on the machine. Without giving panic any room, he went about dismantling the device with a switchblade, said a little prayer, tweaked a few wires and voila, Dimas Delgado was swinging in corners on the screen! It was all going to be okay.

Down at the team’s little cove in the hotel where all meals and meetings took place, the mood was just right. The nerves weren’t palpable, the buoyancy wasn’t bouncing off the walls, the volume on the boom box was moderate and the laughs were genuine. The blueprint for the evening was rolled out. The set-pieces – both defensive and offensive – were broken down to the detail, throw-ins had their fair share of screen time too. Remember Bheke-Juanan-Chencho against NorthEast United at the Fortress?

All routines seemed to have been ticked off by Cuadrat, when he extended his request for attention. The screen was frozen at the third of the three second half extra time minutes, of the second leg Europa League Round of 16 tie between Kuban Krasnodar and Valencia. The Spaniards had traveled to Russia with a 2-1 advantage which Magmodev Suleymanov wiped out in the 85th minute. Krasnodar were headed to the quarterfinal with the away goal. Cuadrat explained the context and went on to roll the video. Valencia’s Kevin Gameiro has the ball on the right when Krasnodar defender Cristian Ramirez slides needlessly and misses, to wipe himself out of the equation. The ball is cut back for Gonçalo Guedes who, like a skilled matador, delays his touch long enough for Suleymanov to charge past with no reason, before firing Valencia into the last-eight with literally seconds on the clock. “You saw what happened there,” Cuadrat would say. “All Krasnodar had to do was to keep calm. They didn’t. All Valencia had to do, was to be patient. They did.” Meeting over.

On the pitch at the Mumbai Football Arena, the scene was gladiatorial. The teams arrived to this moment with little separating one from the other. Cuadrat, on another day, would have simply declined the tag of ‘favourites’ to win a game, and left that at that. On Saturday, in front of a packed room of scribes, he said both teams were favourites. There was no deflecting the pressure off on to Goa, or any of those psychological panenkas. Cuadrat and Lobera went back a long way. They meant what they said. Damned be mind games.

What’s usually been a bout where the pugilists jig around with their guard down, was a far more measured face-off this time around. The occasion was Madison Square Garden-esque; it couldn’t be a street brawl. Bengaluru’s Venezuelan hitman came to battle, loaded. But it was a tight angle, the post and the side of Mourtada Fall’s face – in that order, that denied Miku and Bengaluru. As for Coro, Juanan Gonzalez and Rahul Bheke didn’t even afford him the luxury of an angle of any sort.

Dimas had been the talking point ahead of the big-ticket gig. If there was any assurance one needed of how badly El Mago wanted to make amends, he gave it in 140 yards.

He covered seventy of them in the 87th minute of the semifinal at home against NorthEast United, to deftly slot home the goal that would kick the Highlanders in the teeth. To remind you, Udanta had set off with the ball on the counter and had Chhetri with him for company. Delgado didn’t really have any business to be there. He then covered seventy more in the 93rd minute in the final, darting from box to box, to get his head on a cross that was destined for Jackichand Singh at the goal mouth. Gasping for breath, he hit the turf face down, but got right back up knowing well that the badge needed him for another thirty minutes. Delgado is 36.

The eleven on the pitch took tired but rapid strides to the touchline, where the bench met them. Water was being splashed on jaded faces as fresh instructions were being doled out. Manu Prasad, the team masseur, knew he was short on time and carried out his rub downs on players in pairs, at the same time.

The stage wouldn’t rob this fixture its tradition of having a man or two sent off, and this time, Moroccan Ahmed Jahouh would oblige. Booked earlier in the game, Goa’s midfield general couldn’t help himself from sticking a boot into Miku’s midriff on the follow through of a tackle by the Venezuelan. Krasnodar-Valencia.

Miku has his moment with the Cup | Mumbai Football Arena, March 17, 2019

Cuadrat doesn’t fling his aces on the table unless he senses the need to. And with Jahouh’s sending off, that moment had arrived. On came Boithang Haokip and Kean Lewis, while Chhetri moved up to join Miku. The Blues didn’t want to leave any room for a second heartbreak in as many years. And they definitely didn’t want a shootout to decide whether they were the best team or not. Lotteries are fun only when you know you have the winning numbers.

It was two headers from two corners that had killed Bengaluru in 2018. They needed just the one to get the job done. And in so many ways, it epitomized the way the Blues went about things this season – knowing exactly what’s needed, and getting it done. No opulence, no extravagance. Delgado – it had to be him – floated one from the flag with three minutes to a possible shoot out. This one drifted out, ever so delicately. Bheke, moving away from goal propelled a little take off on one foot and then with a nod sent the ball to where every blue shirt in the stadium wanted to see it go. It took a bit of the underside of the crossbar, a touch with the fingertips from the goalkeeper and a graze of the upright before going in. In what was typical of Bheke, every possible hurdle was cleared. Bengaluru had patiently broken Goa down. No desperation, no panic. Krasnodar-Valencia.

A little more than two hours of absorbing football had been played when referee Muhammad Jahari said he had seen enough. The man who was denied a rightful ticket to Asia in January with the national team, booked his club a trip to the continent with a goal in the city where he was born.

The foreign contingent had their parents and loved ones on video call and the confetti swirled in the air as the Blues collected their medals. They’d pulled them off in an instant last year, but this time there was no letting go. Erik Paartalu wore it through the after-party in the team hotel, then had it on at the JSW Centre the next day. He then ran it through the metal detectors at the Mumbai airport before landing in Bengaluru with the ribbon still sitting pretty around his neck. He’s on holiday now, but we’re sure he’s carried it with him.

Erik Paartalu wouldn’t let go of his prized possession | JSW Headquarters, Mumbai, March 18, 2019

Back at the team hotel, the bottle of champagne was a bottomless pit as Freddie Mercury reminded everyone in the room of their status as champions. But before the revelry would switch gears, someone made a good call in asking the boss for a speech. Happy to sit in a corner, Cuadrat made his way to the centre of the room and gingerly stepped onto the chair. “I was on the road to be the first coach in the history of Bengaluru FC to not win a title in a season. But now, we are only four games away from winning two titles,” he said. The place, understandably erupted with chants of ‘ahu, ahu’. This was a war cry, alright.

Cuadrat then placed one hand on Gurpreet’s shoulder and the other on Khabra’s as he winced just a little while stepping down. The last time he used a set of shoulders was to leave the team in Pune and return home. This time, it was after a triumph – one that was fittingly decided by a set-piece. The Kings in the south, were now Lords of the nation.

Bengaluru Football Club, 2018-19 Indian Super League Champions