‘League hoti toh kya hota’. At the end of the league stage of the Indian Super League, a few Bengaluru FC players started the hashtag on social media, pointing at their total dominance over the course of four months. In any other country and any other league, it would’ve been enough for them to lift the trophy but the ISL’s format, for good or for bad, gives the rest another chance at glory via the playoffs to decide the champion team.
Ultimately, like a long-distance runner who leads a race all through but is pipped at the finish line by the guy behind him, Bengaluru FC, despite storming through the league stage and semifinal, lost the ISL final to Chennaiyin 3-2 on Saturday. The win also gives Chennaiyin a crucial AFC Cup slot.
Sunil Chhetri gave Bengaluru the lead inside the opening 10 minutes in front of a crowd of 25,753 at Sree Kanteerva Stadium but Chennaiyin clawed their way back into the match, winning the midfield battles and executing their set-pieces to perfection, to eventually beat the favourites 3-2.
With this, the curse for the teams finishing at the top in league stage continues. No team that has topped the table in ISL’s five seasons has gone on to win the title. Bengaluru were widely expected to buck the trend but they suffered a stage fright when it mattered the most, with their key players going missing on the field. Credit for that must go to Chennaiyin, who were tactically superior – strangling Bengaluru for space and marking their two main players, Chhetri and Miku, out of the game – and took their chances to become the only side to beat Bengaluru twice at their home this season.
Chhetri gave his team the perfect start, though. Udanta Singh received a ball on the right and the speedy winger beat his marker and delivered a cross inside the box. The ball landed awkwardly for Chhetri, bouncing in front of him, but the India captain never took his eyes off and beat Chennaiyin goalkeeper Karanjit Singh with a cushioned header in the ninth minute.
It was the kind of start many predicted and Chennaiyin were expected to unravel. But John Gregory’s team quickly composed themselves, with their centre-backs Henrique Sereno and Mailson Alves closely marking Miku and Chhetri. Alves has been Chennaiyin’s key man and he proved he’s handy not only in defence but in attack as well. The Brazilian leveled things for his side in the 17th minute with a powerful header from a corner that gave Gurpreet Singh Sandhu no chance.
That goal turned the tie on its head and Bengaluru’s early confidence suddenly evaporated. Their strength this season has been the towering presence of Dimas Delgado and Erik Paartalu in the midfield complimenting Chhetri and Miku upfront. But Albert Roca’s decision to tinker with his formation, employing a three-man defence with Paartalu as the centre-back, left a huge void in the middle. To complicate matters for Bengaluru, Delgado hobbled out after 45 minutes.
The Spaniard has been their creative outlet and has controlled the midfield in most matches. His absence, along with Paartalu playing in a withdrawn position, meant that Bengaluru conceded too many battles in the midfield. While Roca’s team selection and formation raised quite a few questions, his counterpart Gregory got his playing XI spot on.
Alves and Sereno were ably assisted by the full-backs Inigo Calderon and young Indian Jerry Lalrinzuala. In the midfield, Dhanpal Ganesh and Bikramjit Singh were instrumental in winning the 50-50 battles while Gregory Nelson and Raphael Augusto created most of the attacking play.
As Delgado limped out to the dugout minutes before half-time, Chennaiyin piled on more agony on Bengaluru by taking the lead. Alves once again beat Sandhu with a header from a corner, giving Chennaiyin the advantage at half-time.
Chennaiyin continued to dominate the midfield comfortably even in the second half. It was an uncharacteristic performance from Bengaluru, forcing Roca to make twin substitutions at the hour-mark. He took off Paartalu and Boithang Haokip, introducing Daniel Segovia and Nishu Kumar instead. But even that did not work well for Bengaluru, who couldn’t find their rhythm.
Augusto’s delicious finish from the edge of the box in the 67th minute put the match beyond Bengaluru’s reach and although Miku pulled one back in stoppage time, it proved to be a mere consolation.
This was Chennaiyin’s second ISL title, having won their first in 2015. For Bengaluru, chasing their fifth title in five years, this would be a harsh initiation to the ISL. They led Chennaiyin by 8 points at the end of the league stage. When it mattered, though, they were outclassed and outwitted.
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