And then there was one. This is it. Hours of practice and training, months of hard work and dedication and it all boils down to this. This is quite simply speaking, the most important game an Indian club or team will play this year.
This is the final hurdle, a challenge bestowed on Bengaluru FC to apply the defibrillator on the comatose state of Indian football, a psychological barrier the crossing of which may lead to the resuscitation of the so-called beautiful game in the country. Failure may just result in a relapse or an overdose for those of us hopeful about the abject state of affairs that the domestic game finds itself in currently.
Football can be a drug for the masses, but forms a potent cocktail when combined with moments of joy and brilliance. We, as Indians, have refused to get high on our own football, because of a lack of the latter in recent times. While others have moved on, we have quietly relegated our own footballing identity to the shelves, hoping for auto-improvement when there has really been no roadmap for the same.
Bengaluru's job is an important one; it has served as a vacuum cleaner, hoping to clear the gathering dust before the writing becomes unintelligible. But for the overall footballing progress of the nation, they must finish what they started so that the "one where it all started" does not become the "one that could have changed our history."
Can they do a follow-up to the Kanteerava?
The 2016 AFC Cup, which started on August 11 last year with 40 teams drawn from 23 member associations of the Asian Football Confederation, has seen 126 matches played, over 190 hours of football and 360 goals being scored, all of it culminating in a clash between JSW Bengaluru FC of India and Iraq's Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, or Air Force Club, at the Suheim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, Qatar, on November 5, 2016.
October 19, 2016, is not a day that Indian and, especially, Bengaluru FC fans are likely to forget in a hurry. The Blues had huge expectations on their shoulders, attempting to do what no other Indian club team had done before in qualifying for the finals of a major continental competition for the first time.
They had an uphill task, seeing as they were facing the defending champions, Johor Darul Ta'zim from Malaysia in the semi-finals. Level at 1-1 from the first leg, the home team went down 1-0 early in the contest, only for a collective sigh to emanate from those hopefuls in the stand and on the telly.
What followed was a blinder: Sunil Chhetri bagging two and Juan Antonio sealing a 3-1 win with a strong partisan crowd of 21,378 cheering wildly and pinching themselves in disbelief as the Steelmen created history.
Now in the final, can Bengaluru go one better on that magical night at the Kanteerava?
An opposition of the highest quality
If Bengaluru FC's achievements in reaching the AFC Cup final three years after the club's inception and in only its second appearance in the tournament were momentous, then Air Force Club's performances not having played at home for the entire tournament is deserving of its own fairy tale.
Stopping Hammadi Ahmed, with 15 goals in the tournament, ten ahead of the next-highest goalscorer remaining in the tournament, Chhetri with five, must be of paramount importance. Bengaluru will have to close down spaces in the box and coach Albert Roca may opt for the four in defence.
With the twin towers Juan Antonio and John Johnson in the heart of defence, Rino Anto and the 19-year-old Nishu Kumar are likely to start on the flanks. Roca has established his philosophy of ball retention and key to that will be the deep-lying Alvaro Rubio. The 37-year-old Spaniard has been a revelation for the Blues so far.
Crucially for Roca, keeper Amrinder Singh is ruled out of the final having been shown a yellow card in the dying moments of the match against Johor. Lalthuammawia Ralte, the 23-year-old from Mizoram, will replace him between the sticks and will have big shoes to fill.
A midfield three of Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Alwyn George and the Aussie Cameron Watson is expected to be deployed. Lyngdoh's form in this season's competition has been superb and the 30-year-old linchpin from Shillong has to be one of the most important players for BFC going into the final.
CK Vineeth will, in all likelihood, be deployed as a second striker behind Captain Marvel Sunil Chhetri, who had described the experience as the "biggest in his club career" so far.
Chhetri, at 32, is evergreen and, as he showed during the Johor game, remains the most important footballer, not just in this team but in the country. He has undoubtedly earned the right to compete at this stage after being the beacon of hope through dark days for Indian football. If there's one Bengaluru player out there who deserves to have his hands on the trophy, it is Sunil Chhetri.
Taking the first step
The most important thing to remember is that the core of this attack is Indian, not made up of expensive foreign imports. Local players have scored seven of Bengaluru's eight goals in the knockout stages and dispelled any existing notions that Indian attackers cannot be effective at this stage.
Yes, Indian clubs have still not qualified for the group stages of the AFC Champions League. Yes, the national team is yet to seal qualification for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup while 12 teams have already done so.
For India to assert its authority on the continental stage, however, this, the next step, is of paramount importance. As they say, the first step is always the most important. We must ambulate before we can accelerate.
Bengaluru has emerged as a lifeboat amidst the sea of uncertainty in Indian football. Tomorrow, we must wait to see if it can reach the promised land.
Catch the game live on Star Sports 1 HD and SD at 9.30 pm on November 5.