ISL 2018-19: Bengaluru FC turn on the style against NorthEast United as another Kanteerava semifinal ends in joy
Bengaluru. Sport. You couldn't think beyond the Chinnaswamy Stadium for Bengaluru's greatest sporting stories, could you? Well, over the last five years, some of the greatest stories have shifted just about a kilometre to the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, and to Bengaluru FC.
Somehow, anyhow, on big nights, Bengaluru floods its Fortress, and their Sunil Chhetri-led heroes respond in kind.
And yet, when Bengaluru FC beat NorthEast United 3-0 in the second leg of the ISL semifinal, there was a sense of inevitability about the occasion. No, it wasn't because NorthEast were sans their talismanic captain (Bartholomew Ogbeche) and their midfield machine (Rowllin Borges).
No, it wasn't because Bengaluru had never lost at the Kanteerava all season. No, it wasn't because in their last game at home, they'd dispatched FC Goa 3-0.
The inevitability stemmed from, as Chhetri said after the game, their "12th, 13th, 14th player". On Monday night, 11 men clad had the best part of 21,000 people willing them on, living every kick of the football, and at times, if only by the sheer might of their will, trying to drag that ball past an inspired Pawan Kumar in the NorthEast goal.
Bengaluru and the West Block Blues are not new to such big occasions. They faltered on, arguably, the biggest of them all in last year's ISL final, but that now fuels Bengaluru. They are determined to go one better.
But they were faced with adversity - 2-1 down from the first leg, after falling to a 95th-minute penalty. Bengaluru knew they had a fight on their hands. Bengaluru knew they were going to need one of those Kanteerava nights. In the four days between the two legs of the semifinal tie, the players, the coaching staff, the club themselves let the fans know what was needed.
It wasn't a big demand, to be honest. Bengaluru had to turn up, as it always does on big nights. Simple enough, then.
Eelco Schattorie might have dismissed the home support as an insignificant factor in Indian Football, but with those in the stands, Bengaluru FC have lived these nights before. Ask Johor Darul Ta'zim. Ask FC Pune City. The West Block is a factor, and last night, it screamed that out loud. They want to be. The players want them to be.
Once Bengaluru got onto that pitch, they meant business straightaway. They were invested in it, physically, mentally, they were going to give this everything they had.
But somehow in the first 45 minutes, it just wasn't happening. Their hitman Miku, ever so reliable in general, somehow contrived to miss gilt-edged opportunities. He hadn't yet scored a goal from inside the box all season. Maybe, just maybe, he was leaving the stage set for something more spectacular than he'd already done this season.
Nails were being bitten at the Kanteerava, and then, there was shock. Federico Gallego had injured himself, and for the first time in many peoples' lives, they saw an ambulance being driven straight on to the pitch, and Gallego was rushed to the nearby Mallya Hospital. It was later revealed that the Uruguayan had multiple breaks on his shin bone, and a lengthy layoff was expected.
After a warm round of applause for the Highlanders' star man from the West Block, it was time to get back to work.
Carles Cuadrat played a card, just then. Among the most outrageous of wild cards. Off went Juanan, on came Luisma Villa. A back three of Rahul Bheke, Harmanjot Singh Khabra and Nishu Kumar, then. It was a risk, and as Cuadrat said, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. "You'll never know if you're not brave enough to make the changes," the Bengaluru head coach said.
After his profligacy in front of goal before the break, Miku owed Bengaluru one. With his fourth shot on goal, he finally scored. It was the toughest chance he had on the night, and yet, it was the one that sent Bengaluru into delirium. Xisco Hernandez did brilliantly to bring dead a long ball forward from Khabra, and then when he pulled the ball back to Udanta Singh, Miku was on the move in the box.
When the ball left Udanta's feet, Mato Grgic was still favourite to win the ball, but Miku darted, Miku stuck his left foot out, the ball hit the perfect spot on it, and it was caressed into the far corner, Pawan had no chance!
There was delirium, but controlled delirium. There was no control though, when Dimas Delgado put Bengaluru 2-0 up. Even Bengaluru CEO Parth Jindal was no holds barred! His shirt was off, the shirts of those around him were off. Bengaluru knew this was it. They had another special night in their Kanteerava folklore.
When they're having special nights, their skipper can't be far behind, can he? He had his own moment after a lovely one-two with Miku, and he rounded Pawan before slotting into an empty net.
"You always make us believe," their banner said, as the players held it aloft to the West Block. Bengaluru believed, their players delivered.
Let's be honest, Bengaluru are probably not the dominant force they were last year. But the mindset sets them apart. They don't know when they're beaten. Adversity seems to sharpen them. They love the challenge of these big nights.
So on Sunday, at the Mumbai Football Arena, don't be surprised if somehow, they find themselves in a hopeless position, only to turn it around. They've done that all season.
Cuadrat's left fist, for now, is pumping. His players are pumping their fists with him. On Sunday, they want to right last year's wrong. Don't bet against Bengaluru FC. They know to turn on the style, and most often, they do when it matters.