The wait is finally over. Thirteen years of struggle, sweat and humiliations of Indian teams are all things of the past now. Bengaluru FC, only three years old, knocked defending champions Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim off the perch and became the first Indian football club to enter the final of the AFC Cup. At a choc-a-bloc Kanteerava Stadium, the Blues punched much above their weight and set up a date in the final with Iraq’s Air Force Club to be played on November 5.
The tie was evenly poised and the first leg had ended in a 1-1 draw. “The only advantage we have – and a slight one that – is the goal away from home,” Sunil Chhetri had told Scroll.in before the match. A clean sheet would have sent them through but the start was anything but perfect.
In the eleventh minute of the match, Safee Sali took advantage of an unsure offside trap by the hosts’ defence and pulled the trigger under pressure after latching on to a through ball. Amrinder Singh, the Bengaluru FC goalkeeper who had a stellar night in the first leg, failed to fist the ball out and Safiq Rahim, the Malaysian attacking midfielder followed the ball prudently and tucked it home.
That changed the whole equation and Bengaluru now needed a goal to even stay alive. Johor had asked the Blues a tough question and now it was Sunil Chhetri and Co’s turn to answer.
The early goal could have opened a floodgate, given the strength in the squad of the travelling side. However, they took a surprising approach and preferred to sit deep, content with their one-goal lead which would have been enough to see them through. Given the space to move the ball around, the Bengaluru FC grew in confidence and started dominating the game. The full-backs, Rino Anto and Nishu Kumar started probing into the opponent territory, as the I-League champions started knocking at the goal-mouth. Sunil had a brilliant chance to restore parity, but could only hit the woodwork after a few tense moments inside the six-yard box.
However, as always, he was quick to make amends.
A few minutes before the break, the diminutive forward executed a training ground move perfectly to nod home a Eugeneson Lyngdoh corner. When the two teams had first met in 2015, Lyngdoh had scored a stunner directly from the corner and this time he was the source of the threat once again.
If the first goal epitomised their preparations to utilise Johor’s problems in defending set-pieces, the second goal was a testament to Chhetri’s talent and showed why he deserves to be the highest goal-scorer of the national team. From nowhere, he carved some space for himself and with a swift turn, hit the back of the net with a long-ranger after receiving the ball facing his own goal.
No turning back
After the second goal in the 67th minute, the home team showed their maturity and pushed on for another goal. With both of their main attackers suspended, Johor lacked the teeth to put the central defenders under pressure and the backline also struggled to deal with Bengaluru’s nimble movement.
The contest was put to the bed by Juanan, a summer recruit, who scored his first goal for the club in his fourth game. The Blues held on for the remaining minutes and scripted a new chapter in India’s club football history.
The management had roped in former Barcelona assistant coach Albert Roca during the summer and the Spanish tactician has already made a mark, taking the team to unchartered heights. Playing against the continental superpowers, the team has conceded only a couple of times in four encounters. They have looked as gritty as ever and from the early trends, it seems like they are now more composed in possession compared to the Ashley Westwood era and will once again be the team to beat in the I-League.
However, the significance of this victory is monumental and this can kick-start an era of dominance in Indian clubs at the Asian level. The Indian clubs, often because of being drawn against West Asian opponents and otherwise because they have, at times, been too casual in their approach, had never been able to stamp their supremacy in Asia’s version of the Europa League. Bengaluru’s success is a glaring example of how far the I-League clubs can go when the vision and the temperament is right.
Even if the club comes second best in the summit clash, their professionalism should have a deep influence on how the Indian clubs are run in the near future. Despite the innumerable deficiencies of Indian football, Bengaluru FC has been able to leave a permanent mark with such a short history. It is time the older outfits follow suit.