Maximum City. Minimum Gains

In A City Peppered With Detour Signs Around Dug Up Earth, Walking With Your Eyes Closed Is A Death-Wish. And On Friday Night, On The One Patch Of Grass Where The Blues Could Do Their Running Uninterrupted, They Slipped Into Pits They Were Guilty Of Burrowing…

The last time Bengaluru walked through the doors of the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai, the metal detectors at the hotel went into overdrive. That big piece of silverware was never going to slither past protocol unnoticed. But such was the jocundity that the boys even found rhythm in the blare of the alarm. That night in March will never die.

Friday though, was different. Of course, it wasn’t the apocalypse, but it had shades of a catastrophe. Valuable ground had been lost in the chase to a third straight finish as winners of the League stage, and nothing on the elaborate buffet would fix the disappointment. Dinner was wrapped up without much ado, and the retreat to the rooms was hasty, quite unlike the opening ten minutes of battle at the Mumbai Football Arena earlier in the day.

Bengaluru started cautiously, careful in their every stride; much like a big cat stalking a gazelle, hoping for that one moment when weakness would appear. And then a paw stepped on a dry twig. At this point, Mumbai should have scampered off. But Bengaluru would follow an error with a blunder. In a matter of seconds, the hunter became the hunted. Gurpreet’s long punt forward fell to a Blue shirt, when white was the intended target. Rowllin Borges, bang on the half way line, sent in a long diagonal that was all sorts of harmless.

In his eagerness for a second stab at a correct pass, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu charged out to collect the cross, made it, but didn’t get his hands on the ball. Modou Sougou had snuck in between Juanan Gonzalez, Nishu Kumar and a frozen Sandhu to loop a header into an empty goal. It was characteristic of the big man to want to make amends, but in a game of fine margins, the risk would always have the final say.

Scoring the goal that Cuadrat had been pining for, Mumbai pulled out the 101 handbook to making life difficult for anyone seeking redemption. Without possession, the Islanders broke up play, and with it, the rhythm that Bengaluru tried so hard to stitch together. For every single time their beat had matched their move, there was a forced slip. Yes, there was the occasional kick of the ball, but Mumbai’s charts on the wall had also included a tug of the shirt here and a clip of the ankle there.

Dimas Delgado knew he had seen enough. The unpleasant medicine he was being asked to force down his throat was hurting him at the ankles, and the size of his shirt had proliferated since he had first marched out onto the pitch. In an act that was supplemented by a fit of absolute rage, the Spaniard wiped Borges off the floor and sent him crashing down. The Blues had taken every dose they’d been served in their stride, but Mumbai somehow didn’t like the taste of the drug they were dealing. Tempers flared and cards were brandished, but the game’s worst turn was yet to come. And it featured Dimas.

Perfectly orchestrated and impeccably executed, Nishu’s pass for Chhetri never came and the skipper’s run had gone to waste. He then trudged back into an onside position to find Delgado with the ball at his feet, scanning his surroundings. Chhetri, arching his run back to beat the trap, sent his breath down Sarthak Golui’s neck. By this time, the NIVIA had taken flight and the defender had fluffed his lines. Chhetri, with Amrinder in a spot of bother and the goal at his mercy, sent the ball crashing into the roof of the net. ‘Impossible’ was the word that Cuadrat bellowed repeatedly down the touchline, but for the wrong reasons. The assistant on the far side had been in line to make the right call, but had the wrong numbers as his flag went up to disallow what was a perfectly legal goal. Bengaluru trailed at the break.

We’ve all heard what goals bang on the stroke of half time can do to the mentalities of both – the side that’s scored it, and one that’s conceded. But Bengaluru would be denied the joy, and Mumbai spared the agony.

Christmas was long gone, but the Blues seemed to be stuck in the spirit of giving. In his attempt to nod a ball back to his ’keeper, Harmanjot Khabra put it on a plate for Amine Chermiti, a striker who hadn’t found the net in over six weeks. The Tunisian had no time for pleasantries as he stopped the ball in its path and chopped it past Gurpreet. The mountain Bengaluru were asked to climb grew misty at its summit and while there was no turning back, there was no route forward either. They’d just dropped their last can of oxygen.

For a space that could have chosen to wax rhapsodic only in victory, this column opted to take the moral high ground and document defeat with equal eloquence. Mistake. On some days, the fall can be fixed with band-aid and sermons of revival. On others, the dent is indelible. The takeaways on the pitch are restricted to a bare minimum, and so is the prose.

But the boss wouldn’t struggle with words in a dressing room that the boys wished was bigger. No, the hairdryer was left at the vanity table back in the hotel. Cuadrat reckoned a curt assessment would do a better job.

“We had been very concrete with our plans for this game. Then we go and concede a stupid goal. And then, concede another stupid goal. All through the season, we’ve been a team that hasn’t made bad decisions. But today, the best defence in the League gave away two presents at the back. Guys, football is all about character, and today we didn’t show any.” No bellowing, no use of profanity and definitely no stray boots flying around the room. Just a little monologue laden with enough venom to wound, not kill.

Mornings after defeats are quiet. Flights back home, quieter. Chhetri decided he had had enough and set up a game of Ludo on his iPad for four seats on row 18. The mood began to change and no flag was going to deny Chhetri a kill or a run home. But that was till the skipper fixed his gaze on a laptop screen sitting on a tray table one row ahead across the aisle. It was the boss, reviewing the game and the skipper watched as he picked Dimas’ delightful pass before beating Amrinder at the near post with an absolute banger for a finish. ‘How is that even…,’ his voice trailed off in rage as his face demanded answers from those around him.

Dreams can be nightmares too, and the Blues figured it out in a city that manufactures them like they’re going out of style. Sunday morning’s recovery session had countless sets of bleary eyes in a clear indication that no one had slept well. But as they say, never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight. The staying up was done, the fighting will follow.

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