It was around the 73rd minute. Bengaluru, at the time, were 2-0 up and were coasting to the final.
In their box was Marcelino, trying to trick his way past opponents on the right flank, and was set to make a cross. The Brazilian winger was halted in his tracks and muscled off the ball. Much to an onlooker’s surprise, it was skipper Sunil Chhetri doing the dirty work. That too, at left-back.
The packed Kanteerava stadium roared in approval.
This doggedness set Chhetri apart. It didn’t matter that Pune’s defending oscillated between being cartoonish and suicidal; didn’t matter that the Blues were creating openings in the blink of an eye. It also mattered scantly that Bengaluru were in cruise control.
It was Chhetri who lead the way, as early as the second minute of the game. Udanta Singh, who had left the Pune City defenders gasping for breath with his pace, floated in a right-wing cross. Chhetri, at the back post, connected but his shot went atleast two feet wide.
With the Stallions strangely deploying a high-line at the back, opportunities would come pouring in. One can’t hope to defend as generously as Pune and expect to get away with it. Chhetri pounced on the vacant spaces like a kid in a candy store. In the attacking third, the 33-year-old switched between being a winger, a No 10, and a conventional No 9 with a devastating eye for goal.
In hindsight, there is a lingering feeling that coach Albert Rocha sealed the game with his changes alone. Both Udanta and midfielder Eric Paartalu – reduced to substitute appearances in the first leg – were drafted into the starting XI. Paartalu emerging trumps in the midfield battle meant that the Miku and Chhetri dictated the tempo of the contest and swap roles seamlessly.
What without Chhetri?
There are many who believe that either of the other semi-finalists, Chennaiyin or FC Goa are sitting ducks waiting to be slaughtered. Such has been Bengaluru’s form since the final leg of the group stages.
During the previous three seasons, never did the division looked so one-sided. Neither have a clear favourite emerged after the group stages or even the semi-final.
How much of this is down to Chhetri’s contribution? His previous Indian Super League side Mumbai City could have also torn the league apart. But they were a disjointed, imbalanced team barely finding their feet during the forward’s two-year tenure there. Mumbai’s pursuit of building a winning machine continues to be a work in progress.
With Bengaluru and Kanteerava, Chhetri had entered familiar territory....West Block Blues, the “Captain, leader, legend” banners and two domestic title winning campaigns under his belt. Importantly, there was little doubt who was calling the shots on the pitch.
A misplaced pass would be met with a nasty scowl followed by frantically gesticulating at his teammates, and telling them where he wanted the ball.
Whenever Bengaluru were in possession, he would direct the flow of play, positioning himself in the centre of the park to use his vision and experience during the buildup.
The first goal, the least impressive one of the night, Chhetri beat two Pune defenders on the turn before sending Udanta into space. While error in judgement allowed the ball to roll into the net, the third goal was a solo effort that would delight any striker.
Running into space from 30 yards out, Chhetri teased the opposition backline, cut-in and blasted a neat shot beyond the reach of keeper Vishal Kaith’s dive. Sandwitched between those two goals was India’s most prolific goalscorer’s artistry at work, deploying the panenka kick with the tie placed at a knife’s edge.
But what truly stood out was the willingness to stretch his aging legs to the limit. Even it meant hounding down the opposition attackers.
It is a hallmark that flows through the spirit of many a champion in European football. Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba or a Steven Gerrard immediately come to mind – all attackers par excellence but even better team players.
While it would be foolish to compare their class and pedigree with Chhetri, what made them the best was a relentless desire to stamp their authority in every blade of grass they covered. A leader.
In Rocha’s words, “India is lucky to have a captain like him”.
It will take an almighty effort or a truly wretched day at the office to stop Benglauru or Chhetri in the final. The setting? Kanteerava once again.