Bengaluru: After the completion of the second-leg semi-final between Bengaluru FC and FC Pune City, there was one request that was gaining traction on social media — to install a statue of Sunil Chhetri at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. Considering the kind of performance Chhetri put in, it was not an audacious plea from Bengaluru FC fans.
It was a masterclass from the captain, leader and legend Chhetri — scoring a sublime hat-trick — that saw Bengaluru trounce FC Pune City 3-1 to enter the final of the Indian Super League (ISL) in their debut season.
After a boring goalless draw in the first-leg, much was riding on the second-leg as both teams were looking to book a place in the final for the first time.
Before the match started, Pune had a narrow advantage since they had ensured Bengaluru don't score any away goals at the Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex in Balewadi. But as the second-leg progressed, it became apparent which team is better in terms of quality and who deserve to make the cut for the final.
As expected, Bengaluru started the match positively. Buoyed by playing at their own backyard and in front of a passionate crowd, Albert Roca's team dominated the proceedings. Chhetri came close to opening the scoring in the third minute from an Udanta Singh cross. The skipper, however, failed to find the back of the net with a weak shot from inide the penalty box.
Seconds later, FC Pune City almost took the lead with the help of Diego Carlos. Bengaluru and India No 1 goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu proved to be the difference as his reflexes pushed the ball away from danger.
It was in the 15th minute that the game saw its first goal. Chhetri collected the ball outside the penalty box and played it to Udanta on the right. The winger sprinted ahead and crossed it to an unmarked Chhetri, who made no mistake in heading the ball into the net. Just for a moment, Pune's defence went off and they were behind by a goal.
Bengaluru kept possession for most of the first half but Pune had a chance to pull things back. Emiliano Alfaro's pass found Marcelinho whose cross into the box found nobody, resulting in a futile attempt. Just before the half-time, Chhetri, who was a continuous source of headache to Pune defenders, had another chance to double the lead. His header from a set-piece was inches away from the goal.
Things were in favour of Bengaluru when the referee blew the whistle after the end of the first 45 minutes. Pune were not completely out of the game but they knew that they had an uphill task ahead of them and needed some inspiration from somewhere in the second-half.
After the break, Pune showed urgency but nothing substantial came out of it. One of the biggest disappointments for them was the way Alfaro performed. Manager Ranko Popovic would've expected this strike force of Alfaro and Marcelinho will be at their best in an all-important game but it was only Marcelinho who kept Bengaluru defenders on their toes. Alfaro got a good chance in the 55th minute but his header from a great position went wide.
Things became much more difficult for Pune in the 65th minute. Pune, once again, failed to keep Chhetri in check as the captain was fouled by Sarthak Golui in the box. The referee had no hesitation in giving a penalty. Chhetri stepped up to the occasion and pulled off a Panenka as his team gained a two-goal lead.
Despite Bengaluru being up by two goals, the job was not done yet. As the crowd and team celebrated the second goal, Roca was at his stoic best. With the kind of firepower Pune had in their ranks, even a two-goal lead was not safe. If Pune could make a comeback and score two goals then they would qualify for the final.
A glimmer of hope for Pune came in the 82nd minute when substitute Jonatan Lucca converted a terrific free-kick from just outside the box. For a brief period, Pune fans were on a high, expecting something special, but Chhetri had other plans. In the 89th minute, Dimas Delgado's chipped pass fell to Chhetri, who raced past his marker, and completed his hat-trick with a low shot, beating goalkeeper Vishal Kaith.
The crowd at the Kanteerava Stadium were bouncing in joy, chanting their team's name to glory and ordering Pune to go back home.
Once the referee blew the final whistle, there was only one deserving winner from the game as Bengaluru qualified for the final with a thumping victory. No doubt it was a team performance with each player playing their part to good measure, but one man had the world at his feet on Sunday. In a match where plenty of things were at stake, Chhetri ensured he came out with his absolute best and his performance should be remembered as one of best in the short history of the league.
It was not a night to remember for Pune as they were completely outplayed by their opponents. Despite being the second best, Pune should take heart from the way they fought. A semi-final defeat doesn't make their campaign unsuccessful and the management should make sure that Ranko Popovic sticks around for the future.
Playing the final at their home, it is no doubt that Bengaluru will be heavy favourites for the title. They will know their opponents by the end of Tuesday as Chennai will host FC Goa in their second-leg semi-final.
Updated Date: Mar 12, 2018 13:08 PM