And then, with a slow plod, the elephants left

The Performances Had Been Splendid, The Tactics Were Spot On And The Dominance, Evident. Yet, They Were All Worth Just A Point. Frustrated With Getting The Short End Of The Straw Too Often, The Blues Took The Pitch With Much Longer Ones On Sunday. Some Even Carried a Rapier To Slay A Demon Here, And Another There…

This is set up to fail, but for whatever it’s worth we’re going to need you to hold a salt-water gargle, work on a little rasp and then invoke your best impression of David Attenborough before going on to read this next bit.

‘Amid the feverish rehearsals of dumb charades, rapid hand motions that swaddled ankles and recurring bursts of a strong mist meant to heal, the four of them lay sprawled on the floor, unperturbed by the activity. Their grey skin collapsed in folds, and eyes forever melancholic, the elephants were in the room. And the only way to deal with an elephant in a room is by addressing it. This is the rule of the concrete Savannah.’

Every one of the eighteen who strapped up, tucked doses of responsibility between their socks and shin guards as they made their way out. But there were four who ran back for extra helpings. A pony-tailed Aussie who had been beating the guard to the gym shutters every morning for the last nine months, a striker who was crawling through a famine, a feeble-shouldered youngster walking around with the burden of a blunder twice his size, the amends for which hadn’t been made as yet, and a Brazilian who was bracing for a baptism by boos.

Erik Paartalu, Sunil Chhetri, Ashique Kuruniyan and Raphael Augusto – all had their own elephants to deal with.

The Aussie. The Wait

From where we watched, it felt scripted. Three games had gone by with the Blues attempting every set-piece routine in their manual and failing, before Paartalu popped up at the Fortress and put his stamp on the opener. He had run forward, jumped up and then angled sideways to divert Dimas Delgado’s coiled corner home. Midfielder to midfielder. Ponytail to ponytail. It wasn’t unstoppable, with the goalkeeper caught in no man’s land and a player on the line unable to make the clearance. But it was destined for the back of the net.

Several months had been spent on the treatment table, several more hours in the gym and when he finally found his feet back on a pitch, one of them had managed to sink into a hole. A twisted ankle meant more time on the sidelines for Paartalu, and when the medical staff finally gave Big E the nod to join the fray, he was making the comeback his own.

After a celebration with the flag that mimicked a superhero with a hammer, Paartalu went one better and got himself a headband to match the rank.

His presence on the field soon became a breath-taking show of controlled strength. He dictated the rhythm at which the game must be played, regardless of which side had the ball. For the best part of 90 minutes, Paartalu scanned every pass and every move, cleaning the corners of the field like a fancy vacuum. With him on the pitch, the Fortress witnessed the absolute magic of two other midfielders. One of them was a Brazilian we’ve all come to adore.

Samba In The Face Of A Storm

We’ve chosen not to give Augusto and his gossamer ability an elaborate intro in this piece, because we cannot relegate his mischiefs to a mere sentence – even if more were to follow. And before we get to the skipper’s goal, we have to admire the sheer nonchalance of the man who set it up – a man who plays football the only way he knows how to; with a smile on his face.

Fifteen years ago, Augusto found out that football was his only escape from a life of near poverty. When his friends turned to drugs and crime, Augusto chose football. Why? Because, why not? The walls became his friends, the fire hydrants became his opposition. And on Sunday night, in entirely natural grace, Augusto stole the show at the Fortress, much before he ran it.

As the expletives began to rain in his direction from the away end ahead of kick-off, Augusto turned towards them, put his hands in the air and applauded. Not so long ago, he wore their shade of blue. But his switch in the summer pulled the rug from under their feet and they were sure of letting him know about the ache.

We reckoned he hadn’t heard what they were singing, but as he would tell us later, he had loud and clear. But all he had to give was love, and so he waved. Then, when the whistle blew, his was the first touch of the ball. With his feet doing the talking for him, his would be the final word too. He stopped passes that were sailing well over his head by simply lifting off with an angled chest, dropping them dead at his feet. As the game progressed, Augusto’s energy ceased to dissipate, even as the scores of men from across the border, a place he once called home, jeered him for prolonged periods.

When in possession, the Brazilian was Cuadrat’s cavalry charge. The white shirts around him ran for cover, and if anyone did come in his way, they were left with a strong scent of the lolium perenne and deep sense of frustration, even if they were once his midfield associates and still his friends.

Augusto wanted to affect the game and he’d tried it already; getting into the box to find Juanan for a finish before trying to dink one over Vishal Kaith himself. But when the moment arrived, his statement was made with all but one fine slice of the ball. He made it look easy. Chasing away an attack, Augusto found the ball turning over in his course and choosing not to give the back-lift any importance, he scooped it over for the skipper. It looked paranormal.

The ball spun backwards in the air as Chhetri watched it sail over him and drop at the only place it should have. It then slowed down in its wake, allowing him to latch on without having to bring it under control. The meticulousness of the pass had Eli Sabia and Lucian Goian erased from the equation and as Chhetri sent it crashing home, we didn’t miss Augusto wheeling away to those that love him. Job done.

Must Score. Does Score

The skipper isn’t the easiest person to be around off the pitch, more so when he’s parched from a goal-drought [read two games]. No, he doesn’t get unpleasant or whip out moods that catch you unawares. You could be having a perfectly regular non-football conversation with him when he will use every lengthy pause, or window of silence to simply say, ‘I need to score’. He then seamlessly gets back to the conversation, but has done enough to throw you off it. Now you begin to think – all the time – that he needs to score.

He’s adopted the left side on the pitch, even embraced it. But on Sunday, the boss needed him to rekindle an old fling and Chhetri couldn’t refuse. Completely aware that this is a temporary arrangement, the captain decided to make it grand with a finish that was identical to the one Miku scored in the same fixture last season – a banger at the near post.

Later that night, arms crossed, he watched all angles of the finish on the highlights show, and even managed a little smile at the end of it. At the dinner table he spoke about everything under the sun. And then he said it – ‘I need to score. More.’

Look What I Learned

Away from the live telecast in Jamshedpur, Chhetri sat down in the dugout, getting the fluids back into his body as he wondered why even after three games had passed, his side were yet to add a ‘W’ to their form guide. The skipper’s frustration poured out when Ashique walked past him. Twenty minutes earlier, the winger had weaved his way through the Jamshedpur backline only to fire straight at the arm of Subrata Paul with Chhetri and Udanta waiting unmarked.

It had happened before at the Fortress, and the lesson had to be learnt. Previously, an attempted sombrero had turned into a nightmare of sorts when his tackle on Ferran Corominas allowed FC Goa an undeserved shot at an equalizer. Dimas had his fists clenched in a fit of rage when the referee pointed to the spot. With 90 minutes on the clock, and a 1-0 lead on the board, the ball had called for Ashique’s laces to be put through it. But what transpired was a flick, a miss, a tackle, a miss and then a penalty, a strike.

In Jamshedpur, a tirade of expletives was heard, things were thrown and in the long trudge back to the dressing room Ashique knew that he had to make amends. On Sunday, he got his chance. Thrown on the left flank in attack, Ashique was afforded the freedom to roam, not that he needed it, but whenever the ball came his way in uncertain territory, the 22-year-old didn’t need a white shirt breathing down his neck to know what was to be done.

Even in the dying moments of a battle that was well won, Ashique afforded little thought for himself and his desire for a sprint. As Nishu hobbled off, Bengaluru’s number 19 tracked down to the left-back position, stopped every attack that came his way and at one point, we saw him pin Dragoș Firțulescu to the floor, all in an attempt to make a wrong, right.

He didn’t have a goal or an assist in the win, but on that night, Ashique had learned that to everything, there is a reason.

We may have handpicked the four who dealt with their demons, but Carles Cuadrat refused to term the performance of his side as perfect on the night. He didn’t run to the comfort of three points. At this club, there is no ceiling to getting better. Yet, he didn’t shy away from hailing the atmosphere as magical.

Cuadrat’s counterpart, meanwhile, cut a forlorn figure. In the build up to this game, John Gregory, in pure Brit quirk, had spoken of his desire to watch Liverpool face Manchester City later on Sunday night ‘with a beer and hopefully three points’. Within 25 minutes at the Fortress, the Englishman’s plans were undone.

Happy faces made their way back to the dressing room, where there was visibly more space than from when they had left it a little more than ninety minutes before. The elephants had all gone.

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