Miku and Hugo Boumous entered into a scuffle at the end of their Indian Super League encounter. Miku held up two fingers and mouthed, “Two times, two times!”
Three goals might have gone into the back of the net, but two-zip was the score between these two teams. Sergio Lobera would have been painfully aware of those two fingers, the second time this season that Carles Cuadrat’s team have got the better of his Goa.
Twice the best two teams in the league have faced off and twice, Bengaluru have halted Goa’s growing momentum. For last season’s runners-up, it was an emphatic statement, halting their own slump while a man down no less. These two will still be favourites to reach the final but Lobera will hope this wasn’t a sneak peek into the title showdown.
As for the man holding up the fingers? Miku’s back.
Anti-climax in Bengaluru
Goa, in close to two seasons under Sergio Lobera, had failed to get their defence sorted out. With the pairing of Mourtada Fall-Carlos Pena at the heart of defence, they had kept five consecutive clean sheets, their best run in five years of the ISL.
Bengaluru, on the other hand, were on their knees, slow crawling towards the play-offs with three losses in the last five. Their play hadn’t been the same since Miku was injured and their attack had suffered from the loss of their Venezuelan hitman.
The Gaurs had overtaken Bengaluru at the top of the table, courtesy goal difference and a win could help balance the head-to-head record as well. Their own lethal weapon, Coro, was leading in the Golden Boot race while Miku was goal-less in four games.
The visitors, true to the script, were the better of the sides in the first period with Ahmed Jahouh hitting the post and testing a jittery Gurpreet Sandhu in the first four minutes.
Brandon Fernandes, Jackichand Singh and Edu Bedia were guilty of squandering chances while Coro barely received any service, shackled by Juanan Gonzalez and Rahul Bheke. Goa pushed their full-backs higher, stretching Nishu Kumar and Rino Anto.
Both full-backs received early yellow cards, as Lobera’s plan to overload the flanks and let Fernandes and Singh run between the lines of defence seemed to be working but lacked an end product.
With Bengaluru under the cosh, Nishu lashed out at referee Pranjal Banerjee’s decision to whistle for a foul. Banerjee’s decision to book the Bengaluru left-back for dissent was a big call, given the importance of the game to the semi-final line-ups.
A man down, in poor form and stretched in the first half, Bengaluru were ripe for the taking. Goa had gone 500 minutes without conceding, had the league’s top scorer and the carrot of finishing as league toppers in front of them. The signs could not have been more wrong.
The hit-man cometh
The hosts re-grouped at the break, defended in two banks of four leaving Miku up front, ploughing a lone furrow. Furthermore, the two lines operated close to each other, narrowing and closing down the spaces, choking Coro’s supply line. The Spaniard had one off-target shot all evening to show for his efforts.
Juanan’s first goal was a striker’s finish but the second show-cased Miku’s contribution to the team. Bengaluru’s number seven held the ball up for Dimas, who pinged a ball over the top for Udanta. Fall had been taken off for Hugo Boumous and the change had left Goa perilously thin at the back. Bengaluru’s Manipuri winger nailed the finish and Lobera’s tactical error had killed his team’s chances.
Miku still had to break his personal dry spell and he did it in style. Receiving the ball 30 yards out, he turned Lenny Rodrigues and he let fly. Naveen Kumar in Goa’s goal was caught out and it put the gloss on 23 excellent second-half minutes for the home team.
Goa had further chances, but squandered them, as Fernandes and Boumous could and should have pulled the score back to 3-2. They are the league’s highest scorers, but this is the fifth time in 17 games that they have been shut out.
Lobera will have questions to answer after this game. Did his Goa peak too early? Was this a minor blip in an otherwise splendid second-half of the ISL? Bengaluru also fired a warning shot to their rivals, that they were in it to win it.
More importantly, the win ensured that they would top the league table for the second year running, their claim to winning an ongoing argument about the merits of the achievement. At the very least, it was a declaration of intent from Bengaluru three games prior to a repeat appearance in the final.