In the end, it was one step too many, a bridge too far to cross, a land of promise too far to reach. The look on the faces of Sunil Chhetri and Eugeneson Lyngdoh at the final whistle in Doha on Saturday said it all.
The two Indian players key to Bengaluru FC's fantastic run to the AFC Cup final had their heads in their hands, unable to bear the fact that they would have to wait another year to get their hands on the trophy. Agonisingly close. Tantalising. Anguish. So close yet so far. Not quite.
We can use all the adjectives and cliches in the world, but nothing really hits quite hard like losing in the final of a major tournament. Falling at the last hurdle, however formidable the opposition, is never an easy blow to cushion. In the end, it can be quite devastating, the ever-pervading sense of "what could have been" overshadowed by the evasive grasp of glory.
Battle of the first timers
This was a momentous occasion for Bengaluru FC and Iraq's Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya (Air Force Club) as both clubs were competing in the final of a major continental tournament for the first time. In Bengaluru's case, this was a first for an Indian club as well.
The teams adopted identical 4-2-3-1 formations with Bengaluru coach Albert Roca forced to field second-choice keeper Lalthuammawia Ralte instead of their regular custodian Amrinder Singh, the latter missing through suspension.
Nerves, not individual players, were the central protagonists of the first half with the teams measuring each other up and feeling their way into the game. Both had half chances in the first 45 minutes while not really seizing the initiative to take control of the match with the Iraqi side shading the first half.
Pragmatism has been the hallmark of Bengaluru FC under manager Albert Roca and it showed as the Blues were compact and tight in the middle of the park against opponents who were more physical and had more time in possession of the ball.
In the initial stages, the Indians harried the Iraqis to try and force them into committing a mistake as Air Force remained patient in starting attacks from the back.
Ralte allays pre-match fear
Heading into the match, Amrinder would be a big miss and how Ralte would cope with the free-scoring Iraqis was a major concern. The West Block Blues need not have worried. The 23-year old Mizo was instrumental in keeping his team in the game in the first half.
After an even 15 minutes, the Iraqis upped the ante and tested the Blues keeper with a couple of long-rangers which Ralte was equal to. Barring a spill from a routine cross, he hardly put a foot wrong, pulling off a reflex save from a header off a corner and an even better block from Amjed Radhi to deny Emad Majeed who had an open goal at his mercy.
Humam Tareq, the prodigious 20-year old who started the match behind the competition's top scorer, Hammadi Ahmed, was growing into the game but had to be substituted after 25 minutes by Osama Ali, giving coach Bashir Qasim an early headache.
Bengaluru's best chance of the first half came when Rino Anto's cross from the right just evaded the head of Chhetri, only for defender Sameh Saeed to clear it away in time.
A questionable switch
The second half started with greater gusto as compared to the first half with Air Force attacking the Bengaluru goal with greater intent, Qasim's half-time talk spurring the Iraqis into action.
Radhi, the best player on the night, released Saaed on the right who pulled the ball back for Hammadi who missed the target with his shot.
At the other end, Chhetri evaded a couple of challenges before laying it off for Lyngdoh, who did not have the best of games and saw his shot blocked. Ralte then made a good save after defender Saad Natiq's header off a corner seemed destined for the net.
The moment where it seemed to collapse for Bengaluru and Roca was the double substitution of birthday boy Nishu Kumar and Alwyn George, both underwhelming on the night, for Seminlen Doungel and Udanta Singh, to try and inject some pace into their attacks.
Bengaluru's 4-2-3-1 became a 3-5-2 with Rino Anto and Udanta the designated full-backs as holding midfielder Cameron Watson pushed back into defence. This seemed to open the floodgates as Air Force suddenly found too much space in the middle of park, the stream of Iraqi attackers too much for the 37-year old Alvaro Rubio to handle by himself. The Spaniard had been solid till that point.
Ahmed Kadhim, completely marked out by Watson till that point, found space to play Radhi down the left, who skipped away from the challenges of Rubio and John Johnson with only Ralte to beat out. The keeper came out to block Radhi's shot who instead chose to pass it to Hammadi, who tapped it into the empty net to score his 16th goal of the competition, giving Air Force a lead with 20 minutes to go.
Radhi almost doubled his side's lead but his curler went inches wide of Ralte's right-hand post as Bengaluru kept getting pushed back without being able to retain the ball for a sufficient amount of time.
By the time the mistake was rectified with Salam Ranjan Singh coming on for Rubio after 83 minutes, the damage had been done and a centre-back was onto the pitch at a time when an attacking substitution was badly required.
CK Vineeth did have a glorious chance with two minutes of normal time to be played, but the striker from Kerala could not connect with a Watson free-kick after having found himself unmarked at the near post.
The full-time whistle confirmed Air Force as the new AFC Cup champions with the Bengaluru players inconsolable.
This brought to an end a great run by the JSW-owned club in this year's competition as they reached the summit clash a mere three years after inception, thrilling not just their own fans but fans of Indian football with some superb displays along the way.