It all started so seemingly according to plan for Bengaluru FC against Chennaiyin FC in the finals of the Indian Super League (ISL) in front of their boisterous home support at the Sree Kanteerava stadium on Saturday.
A fast start coupled with a ninth-minute goal by skipper Sunil Chhetri had the West Block Blues bouncing in delight. The signs were ominous with the league-stage leaders playing on the front-foot with aplomb. It seemed like Albert Roca’s curveball of starting with a three-man defence in the finals was about to pay off.
However, John Gregory’s men have made a habit of producing a response whenever they have gone behind this season and that trait would be on display once again on Saturday.
That response came in the form of a thumping header from central defender Mailson Alves through a corner-kick, just eight minutes after Chhetri had put the Blues in front. For a side that has hurt a lot of teams with their set-pieces, Bengaluru ultimately perished by it with the Brazilian defender adding another at the stroke of half-time to turn the tie on its head.
That was not the only contribution from Alves who was equally brilliant in central defence alongside Henrique Sereno. The defensive solidity the pair provided on the night has been a hallmark of Chennaiyin’s campaign all season.
With veteran Inigo Calderon equally brilliant at right-back, a resilient Marina Machans were able to absorb all that the Bengaluru offence threw at them. Calderon’s two brilliant last-ditch blocks which would have resulted in sure Bengaluru goals is worthy of special praise.
Supported by the double-pivot of Dhanpal Ganesh and Bikramjit Singh in midfield, the assuredness that the backline provided allowed John Gregory’s men to pick and choose their moments to attack the Bengaluru defence.
Hardly were the eventual champions flustered on the night with their immense work-rate across the pitch shining through. Each and every man in the Chennaiyin XI performed their job to the 'T' as Gregory’s masterclass in resilience and pragmatism proved to be the ultimate winner.
Up front, Jeje made a nuisance of himself, battling the three Bengaluru defenders for each aerial ball. While Roca’s men chose to press high up the pitch from the very start, Gregory’s men chose to pick their moments while pressing too.
Once the Super Machans had taken the lead, their solid defence was never going to make it easy for Bengaluru to get back. Resilience is their hallmark and the second-half showed that. For much of it, the Blues’ offence failed to penetrate the visitors’ defence.
When Raphael Augusto had doubled that lead with a peach of a strike from outside the box following a lethal counter-attack, it was going to take a brave man to bet against Chennaiyin from that point. Despite Roca making the final throw of the dice with his substitutions, it failed to provide any further penetration as Gregory’s men put on an exhibition of teamwork.
When Bengaluru did eventually finally break through the Chennaiyin wall, Karanjit Singh was equally up to the task between the sticks, pulling off a great save from Chhetri’s close-range header.
With confidence brimming through the XI players in whites on the night, Bengaluru could have brought an extra man on the pitch and it still might not have made a difference. They did create some gilt-edged openings in the dying minutes and it could very well have been a different story if Chhetri had buried his effort from a few yards out but as they say, fortune favours the brave.
For brave were Chennaiyin on the night in the den of the side that took the league by storm in their very first campaign. Despite defending with vigour throughout the ninety, they more than matched Bengaluru in offence and ultimately had more shots on target than them.
In the end, it was their solidity which was the vital catalyst for their second title win, and despite Miku’s late goal, nothing was going to take away the win from Gregory’s fighters as Roca’s Bengaluru were left to lick their wounds.