For a major part of their AFC Cup play-off game against TC Sports Club, Bengaluru FC were on the edge. The Indian Super League side conceded a two-goal advantage before grabbing a late winner to win the first leg of their AFC Cup playoff 3-2 on Tuesday and put themselves in a commanding position to enter the group stage of the tournament.
An Erik Paartalu goal (69’) between a Thongkhosiem Haokip brace (52’ 78’) gave Bengaluru FC vital away goals in the first-leg playoff tie. The second leg is scheduled to be held in Bengaluru’s Kanteerava Stadium on February 20. The match was played under extraordinary circumstances at the National Stadium in Male in front of a sparse crowd owing to the state of emergency in the island nation. Bengaluru, in fact, were mulling the option of giving the tie a miss following an advisory by the Indian government, directing them to defer the visit. However, they made the short trip after receiving assurances from the Asian Football Confederation and Maldives National Defence Force.
But political scenario in Maldives wasn’t the only worry for Bengaluru FC coach Albert Roca. Having played back-to-back games for the last few weeks in the ISL and the first round of AFC Cup playoffs, the Spanish coach was forced to rotate his squad and leave out some of the key players, including club captain Sunil Chhetri and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
Haokip started his second consecutive game, Paartalu began in the middle and Subhasish Bose was the makeshift centre-back. After a goalless first half which saw few chances, Bengaluru scored six minutes into the second period from a set-piece. Their Spanish midfielder Toni Dovale swung a corner that full back Rahul Bheke managed to get a head to before Haokip nodded it past the TC Sports Club goalkeeper.
The goal injected the confidence that Bengaluru looked bereft of in the first half and the swift passing and spells of possession resumed. But it would be a set-piece that would catch the hosts off-guard again in the 69th minute when Paartalu rose to head home Dovale’s cross from another corner to make it 2-0. Just when it seemed that the match was all but over, two mistakes in as many minutes by Bengaluru saw TC Sports claw back into the game. Top scorer for the Maldivian club in the campaign, Anatolii Vlasichev took his tally to five when he smashed home a cut-back from Ibrahim Mahudhee in the 71st minute to pull one back. The hosts equalized in the 73rd when Mahudhee made the most of a lapse from Subhasish to find himself with time and space in the box to shoot past Lalthuammawia Ralte to make it 2-2.
With the match heading for a draw, Haokip picked the ball 30-yards out in TC Sports Club’s half and took on two defenders before unleashing a hit that left ’keeper Ibrahim Nadeem with absolutely no chance. TC Sports Club threw the kitchen sink at Bengaluru in the dying minutes of the match but the Indian club just about held on.