Bengaluru FC had to work their socks off. Every tackle, interception, block, duel - they were made to earn it. Even with 10 men in extra time, FC Goa refused to cave in. But just when the Indian Super League final at the Mumbai Football Arena seemed to be heading to penalties, the champions found an unlikely hero in Rahul Bheke to cap off a near perfect season.
But till then it was a night of dogged determination for both Bengaluru and Goa as they cancelled each other’s attempts out with solid defensive efforts as they chased their first ISL crown.
For Bengaluru star striker Miku, it was proving to be an evening like that infuriating first-half against NorthEast United at the Kanteerava Stadium, blowing away every opportunity whenever he popped into the box. Sunil Chhetri was also monitored well by Carlos Pena and Mourtada Fall at the heart of the Goan defence while Xisco Hernandez failed to showcase any influence in the final third.
The fact that it wasn’t until the first half of extra-time that Bengaluru registered a shot on goal, summed up how well the Goan backline marshalled the defence.
But from the unlikeliest of goalscorers and in the unlikeliest moment, Rahul Bheke turned away from marker Pena during a corner from Dimas Delgado in the 117th minute. The Mumbai defender leapt high, timing his jump to perfection and looped a terrific header, brushing past the fingers of Naveen Kumar before kissing the inside of the post and finding the net. The section of West Block Blues supporters who had turned quite, were back to life again, celebrating the moment they were waiting for all evening.
“At the 90th minute, I was just thinking which side I’ll shoot, if the game heads into penalties,” revealed a jubilant Chhetri after the final celebrations. “Even before we scored, we weren’t sure where the goal would come from. Goa were down to 10 men but we weren’t pumped enough to go forward and score a goal. But thank God, Rahul Bheke was there. He promised us before the game that he would score and that was not an easy finish.”
With Hernandez starting over Albert Serran, Bengaluru coach Carles Cuadrat had taken a risky gamble by compromising on his defensive solidity against the most threatening side in the league. The Blues deployed a high defensive line and would pump long balls forward for Miku, the Venezuelan tasked with holding the ball high up and create spaces for Udanta Singh and Chhetri on the flanks.
By the end of ninety minutes, Fall and Pena had done enough to keep Goa level even though Miku found himself on the end of two gilt-edged opportunities.
Meanwhile, the plan was simple for Goa. Win the ball, play from the back and make use of the wide spaces. On many instances during the first half, Ahmed Jahouh, who got the marching orders during extra time to reduce his team to 10 men, and Lenny Rodrigues tried to target the inexperienced Nishu Kumar on the left hand side, by feeding long balls to Jackichand Singh. It seemed to work, but the end product wasn’t good enough.
Although it was the midfield where majority of the battles were taking place, both defences were disciplined enough to deny any openings. Given the luxury of attackers both sides had, they failed to muster a single shot on target in a closely-fought first-half.
Jahouh sending off was the turning point
While Goa lost their captain Mandar Rao Dessai just before the interval, the full-back pairing of substitute Saviour Gama and Serition Fernandes tried to overlap the channels. To counter this, Cuadrat made his team drop deep with Udanta and Chhetri tracking the runs by the Goan fullbacks.
“The only difference in this game was that the attackers would come back and defend. You cannot not do this against a team like Goa. They have players that can change the game at any second.The message from the coach was that we try to attack but as soon as we lose the ball, we come back and defend, have the numbers (at the back).
“For players like me, Miku and Udanta (Singh), it was not easy because we are attacking minded players. I am glad we did it because Nishu (Kumar) and (Harmanjot) Khabra got that security when Udanta and I traced back. Saying that you are a big team and you attack really well but coming back and defending is probably what won us the trophy,” said Chhetri when questioned about the team’s approach.
With Hugo Boumous watching intensely from the sidelines, the Gaurs craved for someone of his ability who could be the key to unlocking the Bengaluru defence. But a second booking for Jahouh foiled coach Sergio Lobera’s plans to make an attacking change.
“I think the key moment was that we went one man down at the end of the first half of extra time. It was a tight game. I felt it was going to be a matter of small details and the sending off was a big handicap for us for the second half.
“I had to play six Indian players on the pitch. So, that didn’t let me put Boumous earlier. From the form of the foreign players on the pitch, two were centre-backs, one was Edu Bedia, one was Ferran Corominas. And Boumous is a more attacking player. So, it was difficult to make that substitution with a man down,” Lobera said after the game.
On the eve of the finale, Cuadrat had spoken about how certain events could change the dynamics of the game, citing Chennaiyin FC’s example when they staged a pulsating comeback to beat Bengaluru in the final last year.
The same happened to Lobera. After losing key personnel in Mandar and Jahouh, there was very little he could do.
In the end, Bheke’s late header not only sealed a maiden ISL crown for Bengaluru but also meant the club has now won a major domestic competition every year since their inception in 2013.
“After losing the final last year we did not speak about it but everyone knew that one day we will be presented with this chance. Everybody thought about it, everybody wanted this. You know what Asia, we are back,” Chhetri concluded.