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It Was The Game Where Months Of Digital One-Upmanship Would Be Settled Exactly Where It Should Be – On A Football Pitch. And It Ended With Bengaluru Making The Goals Trend…

Saturday night in Manchester served up arguably the most dissolute version of a derby that football has seen in recent times. Broadcast montages glorified the days when the importance of three points became secondary; when honour and dignity became what was at stake. But on Saturday night, as Peter Drury perfectly put it, ‘Manchester was mute and Old Trafford was dilute’, and then when all and sundry turned to the football to excite, it turned its back like a jilted lover.

Roy Keane fumed in the Sky Sports studio, and this time he had good reason to. Social Media raged at the absence of well, rage on the pitch. Barney Ronay termed it an ‘anti-derby’ and a ‘reverse-clásico’. He went on to claim that it had been a night intended to remind us how unnaturally alive football has been in its empty arenas. And also how quickly that can dissipate. We agreed.

Now Sunday night in Goa was no derby. It wouldn’t have been one even if it unravelled in Bangalore or in Kochi. A clásico? Nah. And while we won’t break our heads attempting to christen it, we can all agree that when Bengaluru square off with Kerala, sparks fly – on keyboards and the pitch alike. And on most days in football, that’s all you need.

This was a game tailor-made for the Kanteerava. Hosts win a set-piece, away fans cease breathing. Erroneous take, rapid counter, visitors score, cacophony escalates. Visitors falter, hosts capitalise to set up an enthralling second half. Hosts win penalty, skipper falters, cacophony 2.0. Hosts find rage, then find the back of the net, twice in three minutes. Those in yellow stop watching, start locating nearest exits. Visitors claw back, lure fans into a false sense of belief. Skipper rises, visitors sink. Full time.

The beams propping up the stands at the Fortress would have been left swaying, and Bengaluru would have been naughty in staying up past 11.00 pm. And yet this game was played in the corridors of a library. It made us all appreciate, cherish and miss in equal portions, the one day in the season when Kerala roll into the Kanteerava. The quiet did enough to suggest that the game had all the makings of being a let-down. It was anything but.

If Cleiton began with a glint in his eyes, it was fire in Ashique’s as the whistle blew. On either flank, these two cut a series of elegant, magisterial lines with their runs. Bengaluru began knocking on the door, then began to claw away at the bolt. They had to find a way through, and when Ashique’s marauding foray was put to a halt in illegal fashion, the referee sprayed a curve by the corner that Dimas Delgado ran to. There was a plan.

Fifteen yards outside the box, a seemingly uninterested Ashique was the target. Delgado’s roll, though, couldn’t find him. Had Ashique not mapped the distances perfectly? Or had the wand, for once, erred? Almost every single blue shirt was in the final third, and not one got to the ball. Bodies retreated hastily. As Gary Hooper entered the Bengaluru half, Suresh Wangjam was the only one in Blue to stop him. El Torito had Rahul to his left, Vicente Gomez to his right. Hooper charged down, seemingly with a shot on sight, and then when it was rolled to the right, Rahul made no mistake going hard and low past Gurpreet.

Nil-one to Kerala. “The heavyweights are down, but they certainly aren’t out,” said Andy Paschalidis through his microphone. He was right. Phil Brown had predicted a goal-fest, claiming Bengaluru had enough firepower to find the net, and then do it again. It didn’t take long for the Blues to deliver.

In a game of this magnitude, there aren’t any lost causes and Silva knew this all too well. The man who makes it a point to head into our rooms for Kannada translations of his captions has never been to Bengaluru, but knew about how much this fixture meant to the faithful. Those in royal blue knew that they simply had to chip away for the win. And they did.

Gurpreet’s long punt was nodded down by Opseth for what would have been a routine clearance, but Lalruatthara struggled to control, then struggled to hack away. Back in the Blasters team hotel, the suspended Costa Nhamoinesu must have been stabbing his leg with a fork. In a flash, Silva had put the ball past Albino with the outside of his boot. The South American searched, found and then sprinted to the cameras with a celebration that was meant for his children at home in Brazil, completely oblivious that it bore an uncanny resemblance to a tradition that the West Block embraced for two seasons, every time a Venezuelan scored. There’s something about South Americans that score and hands flapping at the sides of their heads to celebrate it, isn’t there?

The skipper, meanwhile, killed all the joy only the way he knows how to – by running to fetch the ball and press it back into the centre of the pitch.

The Blasters were far from ignition point throughout the remainder of the half as the Blues pressed forward. Chhetri, Opseth and Cleiton were on song and you could hear it. Even at 1-1, a cagey second half could never be written off but Phil Brown stuck to his predictions. We’re not sure where he hides his crystal ball between screen time, but he even called the penalty and how it would be won.

“I think that man Bakary Kone needs to stay on his feet, with Sunil Chhetri around, you don’t want to concede a penalty.” Just minutes after the cameras panned back to the field, it was Kone’s stray leg that caught Opseth and sent the Norwegian tumbling to the floor. As Chhetri placed the ball on the spot, his record was immaculate. Never in the history of this competition had the skipper failed to ruffle the net.

The run up was short, but as Chhetri paced his way to the ball, Albino stood his ground. The skipper clipped it, and the goalkeeper stood rooted as the ball sailed straight into his arms. Through our lenses, his customary non-celebration told us nothing different, until we saw there was a hint of despair. The panenka would boomerang one day, and that day had arrived.

But it didn’t take long for Bengaluru to make amends. Less than five minutes later, Cleiton danced his way into the box and fed it to Ashique down the flank. A cross that was fizzed through was meant for Opseth, as was the Norwegian’s strike meant to give him a goal, but Erik Paartalu got what was deemed the crucial last touch. There just had to be an Erik touch to a Blasters game. Cuadrat’s men had a lead they could protect, and it was one they would then extend.

We’d barely found time to rave about the first goal on our social media handles, when El Mago popped up with the second. Isn’t that what magicians do best? Show you things you’re not quite ready to see?

This would take a while to put into words, but we’ll tell you it’ll take a lot less than the time Delgado seemed to hang with his skip before slotting home. Closing down on a short pass, Cleiton pounced and then cut it back for Opseth. The big number nine was greeted by a shout to let it roll, and Delgado arrived with the hop and chop. Albino knew nothing. Delgado, everything.

Much effort has gone into preserving El Mago this season so far, and behind that simple-looking skip and finish, is hours of work by the medical team at the club – particularly by Senen Alvarez. Which explains why the midfielder chose to indulge in a little post-goal sprint to the dugout where Alvarez was on his toes, ready to jump into the man’s arms.

But this was a fixture that was always far from over. On the hour mark, Kerala threw a spanner in the works, and were allowed to under dubious circumstances. A goal that was engineered across three continents saw an Argentinean whip a set-piece, a Spaniard nod it behind for an Aussie to poke home – albeit from an offside position. We’d have taken the final whistle right then. In the studio, Phil Brown had the five goals he’d predicted. The Blues, at that moment, had the points in the bag. But for Chhetri, redemption couldn’t wait.

You’d have to see it to believe it, so we put it out there for you. But when Cuadrat assembled his troops together for a team meeting, the instructions were clear. Second post, over the top, Chhetri to nod home. It was poetry, the way it happened. No sooner had the ball coiled to a stop between his legs, Khabra looked up to spot the skipper. The wrap of his right boot then sent the ball spinning violently in the air. Chhetri’s jump had a hang time that rivalled that of Delgado, and if the Spaniard’s shot was caressed, this was anything but. Albino watched haplessly, for the half second that he could, as the ball escaped his fingertips and shook the net. The thump was audible, and it would have been even if there were 25,000 voices at the Fortress. It was that kind of hit. There was no running to grab the ball from the back of the net this time. He knew he had turned up with a move that Kerala would only tap out to.

The next morning at breakfast, Clieton had the boss for company as he was told about his celebration and why the fans were losing their minds in the nicest of ways on social media. He now knows that those hands that flap don’t make just his kids happy. It regales a tribe.

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