Bengaluru: The pictures at the end of the Indian Super League final, as is the case with tournament finals, spoke a thousand words. Chennaiyin FC players were jumping with joy. The travelling support staff hugged and patted each other on their backs. The moment the final whistle went off, Sunil Chhetri, Bengaluru FC’s captain-leader-legend, sunk to his knees and buried his face at the green of the Sree Kanteerava Stadium - the very green that has been witness to many a famous goal from his well-worn boots.
It was not supposed to end this way. He called it the most important game of his life and it ended in heartbreak at his fortress.
Chennaiyin FC were, deservedly, crowned champions of ISL for the second time in three years.
The keyword in that statement is deserving. This was no smash-and-grab. This was not a plucky underdog hanging on to a win more due to grit than design. This was a travelling team that pulled off a convincing win against the best team in the land at their own backyard.
The pre-match previews did not fail to point out that no team hosting the ISL final had won in seasons past and that no team topping the league table emerged champions at the end. But those were disclaimers - footnotes, if you will - to the undeniable fact that Bengaluru FC started the evening as favourites to emerge champions. This was a team that was unbeaten in 10 games. This was a team that steamrolled through the group stages, finishing a whopping eight points ahead of the second spot. This was a team that boasted the most complete lineup in the league and they were playing in front of their raucous home fans to boot.
But, in another glorious reminder that no sport discards the form book as often as football, Chennaiyin FC romped to the league title. The 3-2 scoreline makes it seem like a close affair but it felt like that for, roughly, a quarter of the game.
The festive atmosphere that started with 90 minutes to go for kickoff transformed into delirium as early as the 9th minute when Chhetri nodded in a deflected cross from Udanta and ran towards the youngster in celebration. It seemed the coronation was on schedule.
Only, Mailson Alves had other ideas. The central defender had scored twice all season and he matched that tally in one half of the final with two bullet headers in the 17th and 45th minute. That the second goal came when BFC were in the process of losing one of their best players in Dimas due to injury and at the stroke of half time was a blow too hard to recover from for Albert Roca’s men.
Sandwiched between those two Alves headers was a passage of play best described as scrappy after a cracking start to the game. No team could dominate the midfield, both sets of players were happy conceding fouls in the middle of the park and it was the home fans chanting that kept the atmosphere alive more than the football itself.
But heading into the half time, the away fans got their voice and a 2-1 lead on the pitch was met with loud cheers off it.
Putting the game to bed
BFC came out with more purpose after the break but the end product continued to elude them. Over an hour into the match - despite the possession and passing numbers suggesting an even game - there was no doubt who the busier goalkeeper on the night was. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was called into action more than his counterpart and it was his save off Gregory Nelson that kept BFC in the tie.
Not for long though as the hugely popular Raphael Augusto - the man Marco Materazzi once described as the best player in the league - added a bit of Brazilian flair to the proceedings with a beautiful curling finish. 67 minutes into the final, and it was as good as over.
And for a good part of the second half, restlessness pervaded the stands. Between chants of “We can do it!” the decibel levels of the home fans started to die down, only to rise up with expletives directed at the Chennai players or the referees. To quieten the crowd down like that in the second half, was half the job done for Chennaiyin FC.
There was time enough in the end for Chhetri to miss a couple of gilt-edged opportunities as the hands that are used to being aloft in celebration in front of his home fans, were busy covering the frustration in his eyes.
Roca struggled to put in words where it all went wrong for his team, other than saying conceding two goals from set-pieces when they rarely did so whole season, put a spanner in the wheels. While the home fans chose to vent their frustration at the referee towards the end, Roca refused to.
John Gregory, on the other hand, saw his team pull off a complete performance - but not so much by design in his own words.
“There was no gameplan as such, to be perfectly honest with you,” the CFC coach said post-match. “The biggest thing for me is hard work. There is no substitute for that to play for my side. There have been so many obstacles thrown our way this season, and this one was the biggest. To come here, to the home ground of the best team - BFC had a distinct advantage to start off. But we never doubted ourselves. And my team showed they had the b*lls to pull this off, excuse my language.”
They did indeed pull off a memorable win with a performance, on the night, that was worthy of the champions.