Sunday, bloody Sunday

In A Contest, The Tide Of Which Ebbed And Flowed And Then Ebbed Never To Flow Again, Bengaluru FC’s Bid To Walk Into The New Year With Their Impressive Record At The Fortress Intact, Fell Short. Mumbai City FC, Like They Had Done Last Season, Brought A Fantastic Run To A Halt. But As It Does Even In Paradise, The Sun Had To Set…

As Bono, Adam Clayton, The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. walked on to the stage at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai, a football team from that city graced the field at the Fortress, six-hundred miles away on Sunday night. Both groups, albeit from different ends of the gamut of entertainment, knew that the opener would be the one that sets the tone for the rest of the evening.

After exchanges with his audience, the microphones, his bandmates and then their instruments, Bono opened with a track that highlighted the band’s 1983 album, ‘War’, and we believe the riff rang in around the same time Subhasish Bose nodded home to give Jorge Costa’s men the lead at the Fortress.

The Edge frowned as the tone turned furious on the Signature Stratocaster he was holding, just as Gurpreet Singh Sandhu took a smack to his face from a ball that then shook the net. Subhasish wheeled away in delight and the Blues had a job on their hands. The full-back, who spent a whole year and a little more without scoring in Bengaluru blue before making the switch to Mumbai, took just 12 minutes to send hands to heads at the Fortress.

‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday.
The battle’s just begun.
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won.’

When what mattered to Mumbai was the goal, it was the way that Bengaluru felt after conceding it that occupied Cuadrat. There was more than just three points and a chance to scale the summit at stake. This was an unbeaten record under the cosh at a place that the fans have called a ‘Fortress’.

Throughout a game in which the Blues were pegged back several times, the stands turned up with new incantations. They always worked. But where controlled precision was required, Bengaluru were brushing, sometimes banging, against the edges. Augusto spent the best part of the first half in Cairo, where he found himself trapped in a pyramid of gold, with Chhetri singled out for brute force and Subhasish tracking every single one of Udanta’s movements. In an instant, the Blues saw themselves staring down the barrel yet again, and this time it was the otherwise infallible Juanan, who was drawn into making a mistake of his own.

With eyes only for the ball, the Spaniard made inroads to what he thought would be a regulation header, only to bundle over Amine Chermiti in his path. The Tunisian had run into his path, and Juanan’s expression was reminiscent of a little kid who’d just been told it was broccoli and brown bread for breakfast. In all the commotion, Chhetri walked over to Gurpreet, whispered something in his ear. We’re sure every one of you who saw the little dialogue, want to know it, verbatim. Chhetri wouldn’t make a big deal of it, so we sagely chose to ask Gurpreet.

‘When he knew who was going to take it, Chhetri bhai walked up to me and said that if his run-up was curved, he would shoot to my right and that if he had approached the ball head-on, then he would go for my left,’ the big man would tell us later. True to the skipper’s word, Larbi’s run was curved and it was met by a spectacularly cinematic save from Sandhu. Chhetri was right and so was Gurpreet’s dive, and Juanan was handed the peanut butter. But Cuadrat’s side went into the tunnel needing answers – they still hadn’t found what they were looking for.

We predicted Cuadrat’s first roll of the dice when Rahul Bheke warmed up alone on the pitch at half time and fifteen minutes later, it was Nishu who was withdrawn to make way. Two weeks ago, Albert Serran told us that his goal was due. He couldn’t recall the last time he had scored and when the opportunity arose on Sunday night, it was stolen from him. In his attempt to head home, Serran had sent Mato Grgic into a spiral, as the ball bounced off the Croat’s shoulder and into the net. He knew nothing about it. Flanked by Juanan and Ashique, Serran celebrated anyway.

As a frantic closing half-hour of football began, Mumbai struck again staying true to the tone they’d set. The Fortress fell silent, but not for long, as the Blues’ faithful soon turned their songs of hope into hymns of joy. Cuadrat takes pride in that his side have never lost a game by more than a goal at the Fortress since he took over the reins. The boss rolled the dice again, throwing Semboi Haokip and then Eugeneson Lyngdoh into the mix, and the Blues’ number 7 would play a part in Bengaluru’s second equalizer on the night.

Lyngdoh had been urged to whip one into the box but chose to feed it wide to Udanta, who took a touch into space before fizzing one for the skipper to attack. Sarthak Goloui’s arm came in the way and the spot of white paint in the box was summoned once again by referee Turki Mohammed, who wouldn’t change his mind for anyone.

For the best part of two seasons, Amrinder Singh and Sunil Chhetri had spent extra minutes on the training pitch perfecting their crafts. Twelve yards out or twenty-five, the Blues’ kitman has waited under the sun for the duo to finish. There were wagers and bragging rights at stake, but beneath the drama, there were two individuals bent on getting the tricks of their trade right. On Sunday night, they looked each other in the eye once again. Amrinder had guessed correctly, but the skipper’s take edged past the reach of his fingertips and ruffled the net. Level again, Chhetri wanted more than just the point. The stands celebrated as he managed to pry the ball away from Amrinder and placed it at the center of the pitch.

With the lights dimmed down, Bono wiped the sweat off his forehead and very matter-of-factly, pulled a surprise act out of the back door, sending over 40,000 people into a frenzy. U2’s show in Mumbai was grabbing the headlines across national newspapers when Noel Gallagher slipped undetected past airport security and hotel lobbies to grace the stage at the DY Patil for a rendition of ‘Desire’. We cannot confirm, but have ample reason to believe that around the same time, Costa’s men had chalked a similar route that would allow Subhasish and Rowllin Borges to engineer a third goal for the visiting side at the Fortress.

A response was an absolute must and when the plea came from the stands, the Blues tried their best to oblige. Pressed for time to be able to 20-touch goal, Cuadrat called for the ball to be punted forward in search of what would be a third equalizer. It was unlikely, but it wasn’t impossible. Erik Paartalu grabbed hold of the microphone, but it wasn’t to be. Amrinder had other ideas for the final act, pulling the plug on the amp and ending the show.

There was an air of reminiscence when the final whistle blew; the Blue shirts dotted across the field in a haze while the ones in gold bounced together by the touchline. We’d seen it before – Chennaiyin with the Cup in 2018 and Altyn Asyr handing us a job to do in Turkmenistan a few months later. On both occasions, Bengaluru had fought until the end, just as they did against the Islanders. At 3-2, even the scoreline was identical to those battles.

Six hundred and thirty-seven days had passed since the Blues had lost a League game at the Fortress, but the slate had to be wiped clean and that’s what Bengaluru did in the dressing room. All that could be heard before Cuadrat huddled his boys together were the showers, and the wheels rolling equipment bags into the team bus. No one had dared even think about the speaker.

“Behind every goal, there is a mistake. I always tell you this. We have to be mentally strong and prepare for the next game now. This is how football is, and that’s okay. The statistics and numbers are always there to be broken. If you have a record you have to be prepared because somebody will break it someday. It simply has to happen one day.”

Only it had to happen on the one day it shouldn’t have. On Sunday, bloody Sunday.