On Thursday Against Hyderabad It Took An Arrow For A Finish And A Windmill For Hands To Deliver Carles Cuadrat The Win. There Were Hearts Pounding Against The Insides Of Chests On The Bench And In The Stands. The Palms Were Sweaty And The Knees Were Weak, But The Blues Had One Shot To Seize Everything They Wanted, And They Didn’t Dare Let It Slip…
The researching bunch at Oxford needed six years of academic toil, countless mouth swabs from heartbroken Brazilians who had just watched the Germans obliterate their fleet-footed magicians 7-1 at the Estádio Mineirão on the biggest stage of them all, and subsequent readings of cortisol levels before proclaiming last week, that ‘devoted football fans experience dangerous levels of stress’.
Closer to home, Carles Cuadrat needed ninety minutes, no surveys and definitely no saliva samples to echo exactly what the savants at the University in England had derived. Except, he wasn’t sugar-coating the finding. ‘You’re going to kill me one day,’ he said simply, glancing around the dressing room. Everyone – the boss included – had half smiles, because that’s what you offer when something sombre sounds funny and true in equal measure.
This was a team that had spent the most of the season at the foot of the table, relegating themselves to the fact there was little chance of an ascension. But the Blues knew better than to underestimate. The visitors had just six points on the board as they walked into the dressing rooms at the Fortress, of which one had been rescued against Bengaluru in late November. Cuadrat’s men had scored early at the Gachibowli Stadium, and then gone on to concede a late leveller. And with the memories from that night in Hyderabad fresh in the memory, the Blues penned part of the same script again on Thursday night.
It’s become common and rather beneficial knowledge that you would rather let the Blues have the ball rolling around than it squished down in the turf with a regulation distance to be maintained and a crowd in the box to be dealt with. But Adil Khan could do little else than divert Udanta’s early cross out for a corner. The yellow shirts in the box sensed the danger, but could only wait and watch as a Spaniard waltzed across to deal. They were made mere kibitzers, albeit without the view of a hand. Albert Roca wasn’t at the Fortress. But would he have called it?
Everyone who’s pebble-skipped on surfaces of water will have a new-found appreciation for Dimas Delgado’s delivery for the goal. It wasn’t a simple cut-back that zipped along the blades of grass at the Fortress. It was curved with composure, care and a false sense of security for everyone in a yellow shirt hoping to deal with it. The ball then took a graceful detour, and bought Nishu time, bouncing twice before meeting his boot and changing trajectory and pace like the perfect drop on a rollercoaster. The therapeutic value of that sweet strike only increases with every viewing. ‘Are they good, or are they very good?’ exclaimed John Helm through his Coles microphone.
While the stands won’t forget the goal for the outrageous piece of art that it was, the dressing room will remember it for courage. The boss let us in on the disastrous dress rehearsal of this variation where ‘we tried it more than a few times, and the ball didn’t fly in even once.’ Picking out big Erik Paartalu in the box was the safest bet, but we figured he loves a good gamble, one that Dimas and Nishu were happy to orchestrate.
Suresh Wangjam’s second start in a Blue shirt brought with it a renewed sense of vigour, and it seemed still pined for that toy he so badly wanted. Marcelinho was the chosen one, and the Brazilian relied on trickery to deceive the youngster and his tantrums, carrying him all the way to the counter before delivering a telling blow. As the referee pointed to the spot and awarded a delayed fall with a spot-kick, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu held Wangjam in a warm embrace, the midfielder’s face cuddled in his chest, seeming to make a promise to rescue him from the spot.
Strikers may hunt in pairs, but what Chhetri and Gurpreet indulge in, is a collaboration. It doesn’t involve ruthless destroying of opponents on instinct. Information is shared over secret rendezvous outside of the pitch, and the when the time is right, a little nod or a raised hand is acknowledged from across the pitch.
It was Gurpreet who told the skipper to pick power over every other trick in the book if the Blues managed to win a penalty against Odisha. ‘Don’t commit early, go hard and to his right’. On Thursday, the communication when Hyderabad won a penalty that wasn’t, was almost similar. ‘Don’t commit early. Go low to your right’. Chhetri had watched Marko Stankovic take the same route from the spot only week ago when the Austrian scored a last-minute equaliser against Mumbai. No one disappointed – Stankovic, Chhetri and Gurpreet.
The phone-cameras were out in the stands because the Blues’ faithful had, well, faith. Gurpreet’s dive was low to his right and Stankovic’s drive had followed similar suit. You’d think the big man would take time to pick himself off the turf, but Gurpreet sprung up in a flash, swatting away an effort from the rebound by Kilgallon. Chhetri, who had stood and watched as the entire play ran out in front of him, rushed to his number one, but was beaten to the embrace by Wangjam. The save meant more to the midfielder, because it was for him. Gurpreet, meanwhile, was letting out what was a war cry for the ages.
Earlier in December, the dressing room had their eyes fixated on the month that was to come. With four games and 12 points to fight for at the Fortress in January, the calculations were simple; nothing was to be dropped. And Bengaluru did little to give Hyderabad the chance to derail their plans. Bobô, the visitors’ other Brazilian became the latest in a long line of strikers who struggled to find the target. When frustration later equated to flailing arms and elbows, Bengaluru would have none of it.
Albert Serran and Dimas Delgado are doting fathers and the warmest people off the pitch. You’d do well to catch them with a frown when they’re not wearing their boots. But on the field, they are always the ones leading the battles. Hyderabad, along with their kitchen sink, pointed their knives the Blues’ way, and Delgado and Serran were always at hand there to show that we’re up for a fight.
Among the new faces in the Blues’ dugout was fresh-faced Spanish live-wire Nili Perdomo. In his first words to us, Nili said that he couldn’t wait to meet his teammates. And he meant it. With jet-lag the least of his concerns, the Spaniard made his way to the Kanteerava the next morning, getting a feel of the turf at the Fortress.
His first sleep in India done, he came off the bench to create all sorts of problems for Hyderabad and their defence. After crashing Juanan’s knock-down into the upright, the winger did the same with a cross that was spilt by Kattimani, before placing the rebound inches wide of the far post. If his short cameo was made an individual reel of, you’d be putting your money on seeing his name on a score sheet sooner rather than later.
There was evidence of some disruption from the visitors at the end. The Blues were no strangers to late strikes. In fact, at some stage this season, it seemed they had become the best of friends. Ferran Corominas’ spot-kick at the Fatorda, Rowllin Borges’ winner at the Kanteerava, Robin Singh’s stab in Hyderabad – they had all been nails in coffins draped in blue.
In carefully orchestrated arrangements, the Blues quelled every Hyderabad foray that came their way. They had made enough friends, and had kept a late surge from the visitors in check, until one rare move threatened to undo everything.
With the ball at his feet ten yards outside the box, Liston Colaco played a give-and-go with Adil Khan to slip his way into the area. With Serran wiped out of the equation, it was Khabra’s turn to try and block the route. It did put him off balance, but Colaco had managed to ride the sliding challenge, leaving Gurpreet Singh Sandhu at his mercy.
With verticals that were eight yards apart and a crossbar that was eight feet off the turf, Gurpreet had a lot to cover. As Colaco’s shot fizzed its way on target, Gurpreet threw an instinctive, strong left arm towards it and tipped it over with a little help from the woodwork. Outside of the telecast frames, Kilgallon slumped to the turf while his teammates threw their arms to their heads in dismay.
It was an act that saved the Blues at least two points, and holds potential to rescue a lot more than that as the season inches toward the finish line. But for now, it was a moment that killed a game that had spent an hour and a half quite relentlessly refusing to die.