The only time Bengaluru FC used their head in the first half, they scored. Till then, they were restless and lacking composure in the attacking third, trying to force things after going a goal down early in the match. Until the 41st minute, when Sunil Chhetri rose above the defenders and, while appearing to be hanging in the air, headed home Eugeneson Lyngdoh’s delicious cross from a corner.
That goal ended Johor Darul Ta’zim’s resistance. And with it, their reign as the AFC Cup champions. Chhetri would score another, a stunning strike from roughly 30 yards to find the top left corner, while Lyngdoh would conjure up another assist, this time for their new recruit Juan Antonio, as Bengaluru shocked the Malaysian champions 3-1 in the second leg, and 4-2 on aggregate, to become the first Indian team to reach the final of the AFC Cup.
In the final of Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League, the Indian champions will take on Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, Arabic for Air Force, in Doha on November 5. But Bengaluru would worry about that later. On Wednesday, they will cherish another first they have achieved in their brief history.
Twice before, Indian clubs have had their hearts broken in the semifinal stage of the AFC Cup. The great Dempo team of 2008, an assortment of some of the best Indian talent and a few quality foreigners, was humbled 5-1 by Lebanese side Safa over two legs. In 2013, East Bengal were humiliated 7-2 by Al Kuwait.
Many predicted Bengaluru would meet a similar fate against JDT, who were unbeaten in the tournament and had defeated Bengaluru twice in the group stage. But under their new coach, former Barcelona assistant manager Albert Roca, Bengaluru turned from being the underdogs to unstoppable in a remarkable fashion.
A gritty performance in the first leg earned them a crucial away goal – an incredible Lyngdoh finish. For the first time this season, JDT – chasing their fourth title of the year having won the Malaysian League, Cup and Charity Shield – were made to sweat. On Wednesday, they were made to look pedestrian. Apart from the goal – which Amrinder Singh could, and should, have avoided – scored by Safiq Rahim in the 11th minute, JDT could not even manage a decent shot at goal. It was expected, in a way, considering their key strikers Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Martin Lucero and Amri Yahyah were ruled out of the tie. Without them, JDT’s attack was blunted. But after conceding against the run of play, the onus was on Bengaluru strikers to score at least twice to progress.
The 21,000-odd spectators who filled the Sree Kanteerva Stadium, and the Bengaluru dug-out, hoped India captain Chhetri would rise to the occasion like he always has. Chhetri has scored so many important goals in his career – the hat-trick in 2008 that helped India qualify for the Asian Cup for first time in three decades jumps first to mind. But when the 32-year-old put the ball into the open net from 5 yards from an acute angle, and when he hit the cross bar from close range again, one wondered if this would be one of those ‘nearly’ nights for him and Bengaluru.
Chhetri, though, was the calming influence on the field as rest of the Bengaluru players began to panic. He dropped back to help the midfield, linked with the wingers and was a constant presence in JDT’s box, never relaxing for a moment. But while Chhetri’s two goals eventually did the trick for Bengaluru, the contribution of the ever-reliable Lyngdoh can’t be undermined.
The 30-year-old midfielder’s goal in the first leg kept Bengaluru in the tie and on Wednesday, he came up with two fine assists from set-pieces, reasserting his position as India’s finest playmaker at the moment.
There were several other heroic performances for Bengaluru, CK Vineeth made life tough for the defenders by constantly hovering around the box and young Nishu Kumar gave a good account of himself in the defence. In the stands, fans unfurled a banner, thanking the club’s former coach Ashley Westwood. On the club’s most important night, his contribution wasn’t forgotten.
Under Westwood, Bengaluru formed the habit of defying odds. Roca has carried the tradition forward, and in the process, orchestrated the biggest achievement ever in Indian club football.