The duck that did the deed

Ahead Of Wednesday Night In Pune, The Blues Took An Oath To Rewrite The Ending Of A Script That Had Become All Too Familiar. And Joining The Boss To Spur His Men On Was A Not Too Familiar Face…

With seven hours to the game, the phones went off to a message on a group under the name ‘BFC 2019-20’. It could have been a speech from any one of Anthony D’Amato, ageing American coach of the Miami Dolphins [Any Given Sunday] – with the whole ‘inches around us’ bit. Leader of the rebel Scots, William Wallace – with the kilt draped to perfection – spurring his people to pick freedom over slavery [Braveheart] was a good shout too. President Whitmore refusing to ‘vanish without a fight’ [Independence Day] came a close third. But it was a dark horse that won. Or should we say, a dark duck.

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, making the most of the neatly sharpened pencil and notepad by his bedside at the team hotel in Pune, got down to a bit of sketching and wasted no time in sharing a mean-looking version of Warner Bros’. lovable character Daffy Duck, with his fists in a clench. He soon followed it up with a caption that simply said ‘full aggression today, boys’.

The boys lauded the artwork. But they embraced the message the came with it. And Sandhu walked the talk. It took fifteen minutes before Odisha had a sight of goal, and when they did, Nandhakumar Sekar pointed the barrel at Gurpreet from 25 yards out. Played through by Marcos Tebar, the winger sent Nishu Kumar the wrong way before a strike that needed every inch of the ‘keeper’s 6’6” frame to keep out. It would be a precursor of things to come.

It wasn’t one-way traffic in any way, as Tebar had a go again in the second half, when Aridane Santana found his fellow countryman in space inside the box, and Gurpreet would get a hand so strong to it, that the parry had managed to send Udanta on the counter. While the ante was upped with every save, Gurpreet chose to pick one, or shall we say two saves, out of the top drawer, just shy of the hour mark to make sure that one of the cheques at the final whistle had his name on it. The entire sequence lasted less than five seconds, but we’ll take the liberty to explain in detail.

Xisco was on corner-taking duties when Tebar climbed high and nodded goalward. Gurpreet, his eyes tracing the ball in every moment of its flight, swatted it out of the air when it fell to Dia Diagne. The Senegalese had to hurry, because it wasn’t long before the big man made himself bigger (remember what we said about the size of his frame with each passing second?) and fluffed his lines with a shot that hit the upright. With the ball heading back into play and at the mercy of Sekar, Odisha’s were to have a third batter, but Gurpreet put his body on the line and took the weight of a shot and the force of a boot to his collar, before Raphael Augusto arrived at the scene to hoof the ball away.

Through the ninety, and importantly a little more, Gurpreet was the picture of a man possessed with the idea of rewriting a script. At the end of the game, when he unzipped his gloves and made his way to the supporters, he whispered in our ears that it was his best performance in a BFC shirt. ‘Full aggression’ had worked.

For a fifth time in seven games, Bengaluru had managed not to concede. With the ‘Golden Glove’ armband strapped tight to his arm, Gurpreet put on a show, just like he did in Jamshedpur, just like he did in North Korea, just like he has done on so many occasions before. And while he worked his magic, ahead of him, Serran and Juanan formed a block of their own. We’re beginning to believe that a mannequin propped between the duo would end the game with numbers that may well win it an award in the post-match ceremony. When the weather threatened to shift (and it has on so many occasions this season), the Spanish alliance at the back, and their collective calm in the face of a storm, was the one that made the difference. And while we’re on the subject, we need to talk about Juan of them (excuse the pun).

He’s played more seasons in a Bengaluru shirt than he has scored goals for the club, but every one of Juanan’s four finishes have been critical to the result. No footnotes, consolations or closing credit appearances when even the most ardent movie-goer has left the halls.

The Fortress will forever credit Sunil Chhetri for delivering what is – and not even arguably, but definitely – the dreamiest night in club’s history. But it was Juanan who bolted the door on reigning champions Johor Darul Ta’zim, clicked the lock shut with that headed finish and swallowed the key whole. If the captain’s wonder goal from thirty yards out was a punch that got the Malaysian side square in the solar plexus, then it was Juanan’s finish that took their soul away.

His second came at the Fortress against NorthEast United when he nodded in the Blues’ opener. The Highlanders would level things, only for Chhetri to pop up with the winner. Juanan picked an opening goal yet again for his third, this time against Goa at home. Down to ten men with Nishu Kumar sent off, the Spaniard had no business lurking in Goa’s third of the pitch. Or so you thought. And then there was that winner in Pune last week.

Like we said, the man doesn’t fancy formalities. He wakes up and toils in training to perfect that art of protecting his patch of green that extends to a little more than eighteen yards from where Gurpreet stands. So, if he’s journeying to the other end, it must count. If Juanan scores, Bengaluru must win.

Minutes before his strike, Bengaluru had tried a throw-in routine that had the commentators raising eyebrows. Odisha pressed forward in a haste to prompt Nishu Kumar to play the ball into Odisha hands, with Serran, Juanan and Paartalu gracing the attacking third. The voices on the microphone pitied the trio as they made their 50-yard retreats. Twelve minutes later, it all made sense.

Augusto picked up a short-corner from Dimas and played it to Udanta. Between the three of them, there was a quick game of rondo down the flank before the Brazilian dropped a shoulder and fizzed one in with the outside of his boot. With the clearance falling to Nishu and with time and space at his mercy, he chose Erik in the multitude of six-foot frames to aim for. As the ball floated its way towards the Aussie, Juanan picked his spot and ran into the space he expected Big E to angle his header for. While he had every right to be there, and every right to score, it was the majesty of his finish that caught us unawares.

The white shirt that belonged to Juanan hared into the box while others waited, and the Spaniard cushioned the bounce on his chest. It was a smash and grab in Goa and glancing headers otherwise, but on Wednesday night in Pune it was the kind of finish that would have number 9s holding their heads. With barely a sight of goal and with Carlos Delgado breathing down his neck, Juanan’s scampered his finish through his marker’s legs, with the only trajectory that would have found its way into the back of the net. It was too far for the ‘keeper to get a hand to, but close enough to avoid a clearance, kissing the foot of the upright before trickling in. There are those of you who had the plush of your sofas and the luxuries of slow-motion TV replays, but you’ll believe us when we say Juanan had the best view. Lying down on a patch of lush green, he watched his shot creep all the way in before wheeling away in celebration.

In a span of twenty-four hours, Rahul Bheke went from taking revolutions with his life partner around a fire, to jumping straight into one with his comrades 125kms away. The instructions he’d got from the pundit and the boss, were both about how to turn a corner perfectly. Bengaluru had shown frailty when it came to closing out games and it had nothing to do with the quality the team possessed, as much as it had to do with being mentally tough. Armed with Juanan’s goal, the Blues had ten minutes and then four more to run down. Cuadrat introduced Bheke to the game, and the white shirts changed shape like a fleet of migratory flamingos in a matter of seconds.

Odisha pushed hard and like so often this season, might have levelled it. But Bengaluru were all grit, just as they were through the game, but more so through the final minutes. There were profanities hurtled across the field as Cuadrat’s side showed a mixture of intensity with the right amount of discipline and desire, to see the game out. And amid the celebrations, the boss didn’t hold back when he gave us his assessment of a fine night at the office.

‘We had been training all week for this scenario, the one where we have a one-goal lead and enter the final ten minutes. The plan was to go 5-4-1 and see the game out. We pulled it off tonight and it does wonders to the mentality of the dressing room. One day it won’t succeed, and then we’ll just have to find a new way. People don’t often realise the importance of the mental aspect of the game, how much goes into shaping it and eventually, how much of a part it plays at the end of ninety minutes,’ the boss would tell us while watching Gurpreet collect his man-of-the-match award.

We’ll roll the pages back (it’s easier if you have the book) to when The Afterthought was scripted following a win in Kochi last season. It took a collective, almighty effort from Cuadrat’s men on that night, just as it did on Wednesday in Pune. That was a team where ‘Miku would defend, Bheke would score and Gurpreet will also assist’. Not much has changed.