No quarter to give

It’s Been A Season Where Fight And Not Flair Is The Foundation That Bengaluru Have Chosen To Build Upon, And Thursday Against Jamshedpur At The Fortress Only Underlined That In Bold. A Suspended Coach, A Winger And A Striker Battling Their Own Demons, A Midfielder On The Treatment Table And A Delayed Visa Keeping Reinforcements Away – The Blues Had Much Against Them. The Solution? Soldier On…

The restricted access to corridors that hold the dressing rooms at the Fortress, the man-mountain in black attire positioned to stop everyone without relevant identification, and the seemingly robust door that opens to a second hatch – complacency, clad in a camouflage, managed to tip-toe past them all, minutes before Bengaluru were to take the pitch against Jamshedpur. The men were booting up for battle, but there was an air of gaiety that didn’t really belong. Sunil Chhetri was walking out of the room when he cut short the clack of his boots against the floor and turned around and allowed himself a word. ‘Guys, I could be wrong, but I feel a sense of complacency before battle here. When this game is done and we come back to the dressing room, I want us to be able to look each other in the eye without any sense of shame.’ And just like that, the atmosphere switched.

For someone who is an authority on diagnosis, club physio Senen Fernandez lauded the skipper’s skill to detect malaise. ‘He always has a word with the dressing room, but he read that moment exceptionally well,’ Senen would tell us.

December had mostly been about carols, cribs and chinks in the Bengaluru armour, and January needed to start with a fresh assault at the summit. The season had entered a stretch where everyone had something to turn up for – pride, play-off positions or the pinnacle. It had taken a superhuman effort to do the job on Goa less than a week ago. But there was no time to have the head in a tilt and gaze at the aesthetics of the scalp. Jamshedpur brought along with them the distinction of being the only team to have never been vanquished at the Fortress. For two seasons straight, the Red Miners had picked the 90th minute to have journalists – with already penned intros – throw their heads back in frustration, while we moved ours the other way to meet the wooden tables.

Since we’re on the topic of heads and directions, we’ll delve straight into the action at the Fortress, and to when Erik Paartalu got his angles spot on in the eighth minute of the ninety that were played on Thursday. Dimas Delgado, calm as ever, had placed the ball on a quadrant that would soon tell you that it is friends with the pattern beneath his cleats. After moving his arms in a sequence that only those in blue were clued in on, El Mago shaved the orb off the ground and sent it spinning violently in its flight towards the Aussie, who took a shove in his stride before nodding it home. Narendar Gahlot was left with duties of marking Paartalu, and all the youngster could afford was a ceremonial jump. While Delgado and Paartalu deserve the shared plaudits, it would be unfair to rob Manu Onwu of a little praise for his part in the goal. The striker had Memo Moura watch things unfold from the confines of a warm embrace that ended the moment the Spaniard heard the thump he needed to.

Bengaluru’s relationship with set-pieces is roughly the same as that of a mother with her bedtime stories – those of the scary genre. While the monsters do differ, the desired outcome has been always the same and the storyteller has scarcely ever changed. On Thursday night, Delgado was in charge of flipping the pages yet again, and his chosen beast was a part Estonian-part Australian giant who the faithful have likened to a Germanic God. Jamshedpur were napping, and you could hear the snore break when the ball shook the back of the net.

Like the rest of us, Carles Cuadrat loves a good goal. But the way he savours one when it’s born out of a set-piece, is special only to him. A suspension may have confined the boss to a plush, white sofa in the owner’s box, but it wasn’t enough to quell the smile that followed Paartalu’s goal. Meanwhile, exactly across from where Cuadrat sat, his staff were involved in a happy pile-up, with assistant coach Javi Pinillos at the centre of it.

To reduce Javi’s role in Thursday’s exploits to simply that of a makeshift manager born out of circumstance, would be a transgression that doesn’t warranty pardon. Every day after the rondos are done with in training, the big man – with his small crew of three or sometimes two – migrates to one corner of the pitch. Within minutes you can barely tell the colour of the kits that Gurpreet, Prabhsukhan and Aditya wore when they walked in. For the next hour, they face execution by a one-man firing squad who is relentless in his pursuit to hit the target, while secretly hoping his boys deny him with vehemence. With seven clean sheets and as many goals conceded in twelve games, you think he wouldn’t really need to do more.

But make it a point to pick out Javi soon after a game, and you’ll find the big man doling out advice to anyone who he thinks could benefit from it. Movement in the final third, decisions in the middle – he has opinions on things beyond just guarding the goal, and the boys do well to soak in everything he says. In 1990, he made his first-team debut for Racing Santander, the club he grew up supporting. Twenty-five years later, he went on to manage them. Surely, he must know more than a thing or two about life on the touchline.

Into the second period, Pinillos pulled the shackles off Udanta Singh. The Flash had squirmed for a little over an hour on a chair that he wasn’t used to being acquainted with so early in the day. Then with Ashique for company, Udanta ran the show – quite literally. But in the thick of all the action was Delgado, pulling the strings. The day before, Delgado had played the role of translator for Pinillos, who faced members of the press for the first time in over five years. With the microphone at his mercy, Delgado picked his words ever so carefully, much like he picked his passes 24 hours later.

As Jamshedpur’s midfield turned into frontline deserters at the sight of Udanta and Ashique flaring up at their heels, Delgado assumed the role of a marshal, tasked with barking the orders from behind. Often times the Spaniard lets the ball get stuck between his feet only to scan the acres around him before making his next move – which, we might add, is sometimes not a move at all. We’ve all seen Delgado pick out defenders in space at the back with the opposition in positional tatters. Tempo, as he says, is to be controlled, and we agree. But on Thursday night, his compass twitched for the first time.

Playing in carefully constructed zig-zags, Delgado allowed Paartalu’s pass to roll through his legs for Juanan before running into space that Nishu then found for a pass. Aitor Monroy was quick to close in on Delgado and slowing to a walk, El Mago had skipped away from his Spanish counterpart. The options were simple; Paartalu occupied the attacking half of a center-circle that was unattended and forty yards away, Khabra expected a switch to the right flank that Bheke begged for with outstretched arms. At this point, the toughest pass to play was the one to Juanan that Dimas attempted.

The glint in his eyes could be seen from a distance as Gourav Mukhi scooted away with possession. The distance to be covered was largely helped by Dimas’ perfectly weighted nudge, but before any of this could be processed, Delgado’s trusted compañero had put his head down and eaten the yards to produce what was a slide-trip that spared Gurpreet the need for an audacious save. Juanan, at his effervescent best, produced a tackle and a half. We’re tempted to ask his wife for footage she might possess of Juan hacking his boy Joel down in a game of backyard football, because he’s never been one for half measures when danger’s lurking.

As Delgado’s arm of apology appeared on television screens, Paartalu claimed possession of the ball. Jamshedpur’s deserters had appeared to have sensed a turnaround, and the Aussie took matters into his own hands. Impersonating the King Leonidas version of him in the banner on West Block, Big E lumped the ball into a corridor of absolute uncertainty, one that had Subrata Paul and Gahlot caught in a trance on either end. Chhetri, picking his moment to magically appear through the square tiles on that hallway, made the ball vanish from between them and then resurface in the back of the net. El Mago approved of the trick.

Gurpreet had thanked Juanan for his challenge, and the pleasantries were handed straight back to the big man by the Spaniard when Monroy lifted one over the Blues’ number 5 to put the clean sheet in smear’s way. Juanan watched with his elbows stuck in the turf as David Grande ran through on goal. He was the man in charge of halving the visitors’ deficit, but could do little as he watched Gurpreet swat his shot away like a fly at his barbecue party. The big man made no big deal of it, but it was a save so good that the ISL mobile app awarded him a goal for it.

Two-nothing games often get lost in form guides. While 3-0 results depict domination and one-nil victories represent tight battles, it’s the two-nils that suffer. They’re caught between a great result and a good one, often charged with being the one night when a side failed to get out of third gear, only because they didn’t require themselves to. But to term Thursday night at the Fortress a walk in the park would be criminal.

In the days leading up to the game, Raphael Augusto’s injury woes were compounded and Deshorn Brown’s visa had yet to be stamped. The boss and his assistant pondered upon the concept of benching the Flash while Manu Onwu knew that this would be his first start since the Blues had faced the same opposition away from home. But Bengaluru, in typical Bengaluru fashion, soldiered on.

At the sound of the final whistle, as if on cue, Cuadrat made a dash for the stands to be a part of what had become his trademark post-match celebration. Pinillos led the fist bumps from below, as Dimas joked about Juanan robbing him of a second assist, the pass that never was.

Then back in the dressing room, the skipper opened the jar of laughs that he had earlier put a lid on. The boss huddled his men together and congratulated them, before stepping aside to allow Javi a grip of the reins once more before he was allowed to let go. With the most sheepish of all smiles in the room, Javi would thank the boys for their effort on the night, and that was that.

It wasn’t the front-foot Bengaluru of yesteryears, but when they stood together as they did that night, their armours showed no chinks. This is a team where Chhetri will defend, Gurpreet will assist and Juanan will score. And when the conflict needs more hands, this will also be a team where Javi manages, and Carles chants.

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