ISL 2018-19: Bengaluru FC showcase newfound resilience in combative final against FC Goa to clinch maiden title
Bengaluru FC's performance in the final was indicative of the philosophy that their new boss Cuadrat had instilled in his team, namely, a willingness to get back and defend
With both teams intent on shackling the other's attacking capabilities, the beautiful game was temporarily put on hold, replaced by a dogged battle for supremacy
Goa were dealt a massive blow on the stroke of half-time, when Mandar Rao Dessai went down clutching his hamstring whilst chasing after a through ball
The last two years have seen Bengaluru make a seamless transition into the country's premier club competition, make it all the way to two consecutive finals and win the title to boot
Much was made of Bengaluru FC and FC Goa's slick passing and possession-based style of play prior to this year's Indian Super League final, with the clash between the two clubs touted as an early sign of a revolution in Indian football. However, when push came to shove (quite literally, at times) towards the end of a scrappy night of football in Mumbai, Bengaluru were forced to rely on a stunning header from Rahul Bheke to break the deadlock and win their first-ever ISL trophy.
The match was a fiery affair, from the get-go. With both teams intent on shackling the other's attacking capabilities, the beautiful game was temporarily put on hold, replaced by a dogged battle for supremacy. Tireless running from every single man on the pitch, paired with a number of crunching tackles led to a dearth of clear-cut chances, with neither team managing a shot on target in the first half.
The best opportunity of the opening 45 minutes presented itself to Bengaluru's Miku in the sixth minute after a quick exchange with Sunil Chhetri. The Venezuelan striker found himself face-to-face with goalkeeper Naveen Kumar after wriggling past the trio of Seriton Fernandes, Carlos Pena and Mourtada Fall with alarming ease. Kumar, alert to the impending danger, raced off his line to smother the ball before the opponent could get his shot away.
Jackichand Singh was the major creative outlet for Goa in the first half, racing onto long crossfield balls from Ahmed Jahouh and Lenny Rodrigues on the right wing. The pacy Indian winger gave left-back Nishu Kumar the runaround time and again to put in some delectable crosses, which were either blasted into orbit or completely miscued by Goa's attackers.
Goa were dealt a massive blow on the stroke of half-time, when Mandar Rao Dessai went down clutching his hamstring whilst chasing after a through ball. The Goa captain valiantly attempted to soldier on for a couple of minutes after getting back to his feet, before allowing himself to be stretchered off. He was replaced by young Saviour Gama, who found himself making just his second appearance of the season in the final. The rest of the half passed by without incident, with the teams heading to the dressing-rooms on level footing.
The second half began at a frenetic pace, as the teams attempted to make amends for their listless display. Jahouh and Alejandro Barrera were both booked early on as they attempted to put themselves about, with Dimas Delgado entering the referee's naughty book soon after. FC Goa's best spell in the match came about just minutes into the half, though Jackichand and Edu Bedia fluffed their lines from a couple of promising situations.
Miku, who was rather wasteful in the early stages of Bengaluru's victory over NorthEast in the semi-final, appeared to have forgotten his shooting boots at home yet again. The Venezuelan striker was played through in the 80th minute by a delightful flick from Xisco, which he unceremoniously whacked into the woodwork. Ten minutes later, he was denied once again, this time by Fall, who shrewdly got between Miku and the goal, only to be rewarded by a thunderous volley straight to the face. Fortunately for the Senegalese defender, play did not go on much longer, with the second half shortly reaching its conclusion.
The first fifteen minutes of extra time were played out in similar fashion to the first half, and a half-chance or two was all that came out of a spell of aimless possession from Bengaluru. The most noteworthy incident from this period came in the very last minute when Goa's Jahouh was bundled to the ground by Miku. While in the process of falling over, Jahouh showed surprising agility to aim a cheeky kick at Miku's stomach, who fell to the floor, writhing in agony.
The double whammy of a foul did not go down well in either camp, as players, substitutes and support staff thronged onto the pitch, ready for a brawl. The referee handed out a yellow card apiece to both the involved parties, signifying the end of Jahouh's night, seeing as he'd already been booked. As the Moroccan made his way across the field to the tunnel, the arguments continued on in his absence.
In the ensuing chaos, choice words were exchanged between members of Bengaluru's coaching staff and Goa defender Pena, who accused them of asking for Jahouh to be sent off. Miku wandered around, flashing the boot-marks on his stomach in the direction of anyone who made eye-contact with him, and Sergio Lobera looked ready to throw down. The congregation of bickering bystanders was finally dispersed after a lengthy stoppage, thanks to the collective efforts of the referee, a linesman and the fourth official, and play was resumed.
As the game headed into the second half of extra-time, it seemed more than likely that there wouldn't be a goal in the match.
Neither team had looked like much of a threat from open play, and both the goalkeepers had had little cause for concern over the course of the match. The fans, whose voices had been echoing within the Mumbai Football Arena for hours before kick-off, had fallen silent, as if to conserve what little strength they had. The spectre of a penalty shootout loomed over the match as it stumbled towards the end of extra time on weary legs.
So when Dimas Delgado stepped forward to take a corner in the 117th minute and lofted in a rather deep ball towards the edge of the penalty area, it took the travelling Bengaluru support a second or two to realise what had just happened.
The ball was in the back of the net. Floating off the forehead of defender Rahul Bheke, it had brushed past the outstretched goalkeeper's fingertips before hitting the inside of the upright and rippling the net. As Bheke and the rest of the team wheeled away in celebration, a massive roar erupted from the small section of blue-clad supporters. Bengaluru once again had one hand firmly placed on the trophy. The same trophy that had been cruelly ripped from their grasp by Chennaiyin FC exactly twelve months ago.
Unlike last time, however, the Blues did well to hold on to their lead in the few minutes that remained, but a spent Goa, reduced to 10 men by the petulance of Jahouh, were hardly likely to come up with a miracle on such short notice.
Bengaluru FC's moment had finally arrived, a year late and under new leadership. Their performance in the final was indicative of the philosophy that their new boss Cuadrat had instilled in his team, namely, a willingness to get back and defend. While they were unable to showcase the attacking football that brought them to the final, they revealed a newfound resilience that was missing when they took on Chennaiyin in 2018.
A resilience that, by all accounts, they've worked quite hard at. “We made sure that when the attack is finished, we come back and defend. We cannot not do this against teams like Goa. It was paramount for us and that was the message from the coach. For players like me, Miku and Udanta (Singh), it's not easy because we are attacking-minded people," said captain Chhetri after the match, speaking about the evolution of the team over the past year.
And for Bengaluru, constant evolution has been the mantra to their success since the very beginning. Over the past six years, the fledgling club has grown at an unprecedented rate, winning two I-League titles and a couple of Federation Cups before reaching the final of the AFC Asian Cup in 2016. The last two years have seen them make a seamless transition into the country's 'premier' club competition, make it all the way to two consecutive finals and win the title to boot, their sixth since their inception in 2013.
With Cuadrat at the helm and a strong core of players at their disposal, there's no telling what the future holds for the Blues.
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