It Was Wimbledon Without The Etiquette And Strawberries As The Green Carpet At The Kanteerava Served A Proper Centre Court Classic On Friday. Two Quality Competitors Went At Each Other In A Relentless Display Of Desire. But Goa’s Flair Fell Short On A Night When Bengaluru’s Heart Had The Final Say…
Dimas Delgado was working out the chords to ‘Feliz Navidad’ on his acoustic six string when Sunil Chhetri made his way to the platform in the room. It was the club’s warm little tradition of bringing in the New Year together, because that’s what families do. Everyone, from those who’ve won the trophies, to those who keep them clean were in attendance, dressed in their best. In all the mirth, you couldn’t hear a boulder drop, let alone a pin. And then the skipper spoke. ‘I’d like to wish you a Happy New Year and I’d like to play the AFC Champions League’. One straight sentence with no pause for effect. The heart’s desire had been spilled to a room filled with people who could fulfil it.
Christmas was bereft of joy for everyone in a blue shirt. In the race to the summit, Bengaluru had lost vital ground on their competition. And it didn’t really help that the New Year’s first questions were going be the kind that make you squirm uncomfortably in your seat. Dimas’ thigh, meanwhile, nestled the curve of the instrument and all the Indian players screamed out probably the only line in Spanish they knew, going ‘Prospero año y Felicidad’, as the celebrations drew to a close.
Cue matchday morning and Chhetri chose to start with a link to a Twitter video that had Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder talking about a ‘relentless’ Liverpool side that attacked the first balls, chased down their second balls, ran up and tracked back, all in a bid to win the points on offer. It was normal service under the lights on Merseyside as Jurgen Klopp’s men ran riot against the Blades, and Wilder’s interview had laid bare the praise he had for a brand of desire that had seen his opposition crowned Champions of Europe six months ago. There was a profound message in Wilder’s transcript, as there was a memo from Chhetri’s early morning URL on the Club’s WhatsApp group.
Sergio Lobera’s FC Goa, meanwhile, had presented Ashique Kuruniyan with a different kind of problem. Memories from that night at the Fatorda, where he picked the wrong time for an attempt at a sombrero, were not fresh anymore, but they were memories all the same. As I5 1335 touched down on the tarmac at the Kempegowda International Airport, Ashique had caught a fever. Appearances had been lavish for the winger, but he had no goals or assists to show, and no number on the Celsius tab was going to keep Ashique away from a shot at redemption.
Bengaluru attacked in phases, controlling the play and pushing forward in numbers. Erik Paartalu unpicked the Goa midfield in more than one way, pressing the button on the throttle and leaving the ball for Delgado when elan instead was required. Nishu Kumar’s long diagonal had found Rahul Bheke in space and the full-back’s cut back and strike was one that dipped fiercely and needed dealing with. Down by the touchline, Cuadrat made it known that that was expected of his winger instead.
Udanta Singh’s turbos had failed to fire, and the boss was brutally honest in his assessment. Up against Carlos Peña and with acres of space to run into, the Flash quelled the fire and turned away from goal, only for Cuadrat to hurtle down the touchline in a fit of rage. It seemed the winger was the only one not aware of the kind of pace he had in his arsenal, and the boss was there to tell him.
A half that was peppered with shots at either end had finished goalless, but it had been a game for the galleries. Albert Serran followed Corominas like a rash, running the length of the pitch to form a Spanish congregation that was previously seen in locker rooms at RCD Espanyol and Doxa Katokopias. Mourtada Fall played the same role for the visitors, with every inch of his body being used to stop passes from making their way to intended targets. The stands asked for more of the same, and the sequel didn’t disappoint.
Bengaluru upped the ante, as the boss called for the return of Manu Onwu. Udanta’s display saw him being handed the bib as the Spanish striker made his first appearance in two months. The opener would come when Nishu gave Jackichand a taste of his own medicine to turn and send a cross in that, well, Mourtada blocked away. Waltzing over to the flag was one man.
Dimas Delgado slapped his trademark floater into the box and Serran’s flight was only a decoy for an incoming skipper. Lurking unmarked outside the box, Chhetri completed his Houdini act when he arrived with a header that had too much on it for Mohammad Nawaz to hold on to. Earlier, when orange shirts made their way through the gates and into the Kanteerava, a banner in the away end caught our eye. It signaled for Bengaluru and its faithful to be ready for ‘King Coro’ and his coming. Yes, the Fortress had seen defeat of late, but to assume the throne was there for the taking was wishful thinking at best.
A Spanish blog would later compare the Blues’ opener to Carles Puyol’s winner at the Moses Mabhida Stadium, in the semifinal of the 2010 FIFA World Cup between Spain and Germany. Delgado’s corner was much alike Xavi’s curler in Durban, and the similarities were eerie, but the chances of Chhetri’s strike ending up as the winner went to zilch just moments later.
In the first half, when Erik Paartalu’s attempted long punt had been blocked away by the referee, thousands of moans were heard from the West Block. The ball was dropped for a restart as the 5,000-man alarm clock urged the official to wake up, but it seems he had chosen to press the snooze button instead. The referee made another crucial interception in the second half, this time for the Blues – albeit allowing play to continue and for Goa to capitalize on the counter.
Neat interplay outside the box allowed Hugo Boumous to go through on goal and slot past Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s outstretched arm, but the goal should never have stood. A livid Cuadrat aimed his frustration at the fourth official, then the referee and then to the pitch-side camera. The Spaniard couldn’t wrap his head around the thought that over the course of twenty minutes, the rules had changed. In the skirmish, a yellow card had been raised, sentencing the Blues’ boss to a stint in the stands for the next clash.
Coming off the bench and then having your number flash on the fourth official’s board one more time, but in red and before the game ends, carries with it a certain degree of ignominy that cuts across leagues and levels. A substitute being subbed does enough to raise eyebrows and stir a steady murmur in the stands. But there was no ignoring the boss, taking a detour to kick a bottle, or far from friendly hand slaps with the rest of the bench, when Manuel Onwu made way for Semboi Haokip. And it had everything to do with Cuadrat choosing grace over a sinister surprise.
At half time in the dressing room, he took the striker aside, placed his hands on Onwu’s shoulders and laid bare his plan. Chhetri wasn’t exactly enjoying the forced company of Fall and Peña, and Onwu was the surety bond of sorts, if the skipper had to be bailed. ‘Manu was making a return after a seven-game absence. I asked him if he would be okay with me pulling him off if our ploy didn’t click at some point, and he simply said he was here to help the team,’ the boss would tell us, later.
Back at the Fortress, the dying embers of a clash that held the promise of a cracker were in sight, but both sides wanted more than the one point they were being dealt. But in the final exchanges, it was Bengaluru that pulled a fast one on Goa, quite literally. It began from a free-kick at the other end of the pitch.
Chhetri, tracking back to deal with the danger, spotted Ashique in space and Dimas allowing the ball to bobble on his head. The route was simple, but the Spaniard’s attempt to control possession ended up with Semboi wrestling to keep it. Moving into space, El Mago asked for the ball once again but the pass to him was released far too quickly – or so it seemed. We’ve seen him in training, where Dimas almost slows to a walk sometimes –as if his craft needs perfection before execution. And like every good magician, Delgado knows that a stage and an audience is where the real glory lies.
Running backward, Dimas turned the trajectory of Semboi’s pass inward for a split second before nudging it back again with the inside of his heel. It happened in an absolute flash, unbeknownst to Lenny Rodrigues and Ahmed Jahouh, who were caught in a trance as Dimas laced it forward to Ashique. The opening notes to ‘Redemption Song’ must have played in the winger’s head as turned and then rode a challenge to leave Mandar Rao Dessai and Seriton Fernandes in a knot of sorts. Ashique’s movement had caused problems all evening, but before his cramp-ridden body gave way, he prodded the ball forward for the skipper, who had dashed sixty yards up the field, showing a type of hunger that the tiger he shared the cover of the Blueprint with would have been proud of. Mourtada Fall and Lenny Rodrigues could only breathe down Chhetri’s neck as he put his stamp on the winner.
On Friday night at the Fortress, even the most potent combination of tactics, strategies, and philosophy alone may have fallen short. Yes, the charts in the dressing room had the set-piece routines chalked on them, but it was a mix of desire, grit and dogged determination that had won the points on offer. Cuadrat’s men had covered every blade of grass that was made available to them, so much so that even when the otherwise infallible Juanan managed a slip, Nishu had voyaged the extra yards to poke the ball away from Corominas, who played the part of Jimmy Hoffa for most parts of the game.
The morning after, the kit man carted the match-worn shirts from the game out of the club offices. We were more than tempted to tell the gentleman from Laundromat to go easy on its sleeves, for beneath the muck and sweat, we suspected there would still be some heart on it.