Goalkeepers are always playing a different game on the field, said the Indian men’s hockey goalkeeper PR Sreejesh. “The players always change their direction, their places but we are the only ones who stand there for a long time and spend more time with the goal,” the veteran had said about the lonely life goalkeepers tend to lead on the pitch.
On Sunday night at the Sree Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru, two goalkeepers in a different sport proved to be the last bastions of resistance for their teams. Bengaluru FC’s Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Mumbai City FC’s Phurba Lachenpa put on an exhibition of world class goalkeeping in a thrilling semifinal tie. A pity then that one of them had to end up on the losing side on the night.
A night which began with Sandhu keeping out Greg Stewart’s penalty kick in the opening 10 minutes of the match, ended with the Indian No 1 keeping out Mehtab Singh’s attempt in the penalty shootout as Bengaluru FC beat Mumbai City FC to reach the final of the Indian Super League.
Had it also not been for the efforts of Lachenpa, Bengaluru would have won the match in regulation time. The 25-year-old had one of his best nights in the Mumbai shirt as he pulled off some excellent saves to single-handedly keep Mumbai alive in the tie.
“I think Lachenpa was really good,” Sandhu said after the match while also being modest about his own performance. “I think in the important moments, Lachenpa made good saves that’s why the game went on for the time it went on.”
Having lost the first leg 1-0 at home, Mumbai knew that they had to score early on in the return leg to put the pressure on the hosts. And they got the perfect opportunity when Sandhu fouled Jorge Pereyra Diaz to concede a penalty. The Bengaluru captain made immediate amends for his mistake to save Stewart’s attempt and Lallianzuala Chhangte’s follow up to keep the home side ahead. That was just a sign of things to come.
With the 22,000 crowd firmly behind them, Bengaluru took the lead midway through the first half. Javi Hernandez took full advantage of poor marking from the Mumbai defence to head in the opener off Siva Shakti Narayanan’s cross from the left.
Eight minutes later, Mumbai silenced the crowd. Rahul Bheke’s cross from the right was chested neatly by Diaz setting up Rowllin Borges, who had started in place of the injured Apuia, to side foot a shot at goal. Sandhu made himself big but could only parry it straight to Bipin Singh who bundled the ball home. Neither Lachenpa or Sandhu could be blamed for the two goals in the first half.
Mumbai switched it up in the second half as they went on the hunt for the equalizer of the tie. Out were the flowing one-touch passing moves and deceptive runs off the ball. It was the Mumbai City that had been unbeaten for 18 matches and pumped in a record 54 goals on their way to the league title.
It took them just 43 seconds to have the first attempt of the second half. Stewart won the ball from Roshan before swiveling away and spotting Bipin’s run. The winger took a touch and stung Sandhu’s palms with a fierce shot.
As it turned out, Mumbai’s attacking forays also brought out the best in Bengaluru. Solid defending and fast counters. Just before the hour mark, Siva Sakthi breezed past Ahmed Jahouh and fed Javi Hernandez. The Spaniard shot across goal with his weaker right foot but Lachenpa reacted brilliantly to put out a hand and bring the ball to a dead stop.
Ten minutes later, Hernandez tried his luck with his stronger left foot. A diving Lachenpa just tipped it beyond the upright. By the end of the night Hernandez must have been sick of the sight of Lachenpa in goal.
In between the Hernandez-Lachenpa duels, a flying Sandhu kept Bipin’s header out of goal. However, the Bengaluru captain couldn’t keep out Mehtab’s bullet header from the resultant corner at his near post. Mumbai went ahead on the night and level in the tie.
Diaz had two golden opportunities to put Mumbai in the tie in extra time. Both times he got the better of Sandhu but couldn’t keep his attempts on target. On the other side of the pitch, Lachenpa was on song. In each half, two headers which should have nestled into goal were palmed away by the flying Sikkimese.
“Phurba’s had his first breakout season. He’s done extremely well,” Mumbai coach Des Buckingham said post-match.
“Phurba’s worked with two really good goalkeeping coaches. He had David Coles last year who had worked in the Premier League. He has worked this season with (Rogerio) Ramos and both have tried to push him.
“We have a good goalkeeping group. Phurba has taken full advantage of a position that you don’t get too many chances in. He waited patiently last season for a chance and he got it. Then he got Covid and had to come back from that. Then he got an opportunity in the AFC Champions League, he performed and that is why he has stayed as number one. To see the progress he has made in 12 months has been great,” he said.
Lachnepa first showed what he was made off when he came on as a substitute in the semifinal against FC Goa in the 2020-21 season. That night saw seven of the 18 attempts failing to find the target as Mumbai won the shootout 6-5.
Sunday’s shootout also featured 18 attempts but only one of them ended up missing as Sandhu dived the right way to keep Mehtab’s attempt out. Sandesh Jhingan then sent Lachenpa the wrong way to take Bengaluru to the final.
As a delighted Sandhu and Co celebrated with their beloved fans, watching on by himself in the dugout was the lonely goalkeeper Phurba Lachenpa. It was one of the matches where neither of them deserved to lose.