Bengaluru -- If Chennaiyin's 25-minute, four-goal spell in the first leg of the first semifinal defined how they have played under Owen Coyle this season, it was that last 14-minute, 10-man, backs-to-the-wall defensive display that did it for Bengaluru in the first leg of the other semi, as they beat ATK 1-0.
They are not pretty, they do not pass their way through opponents, they do not score very many goals, but they do know how to bolt that door shut in front of their goal. Catenaccio with a Catalan twist.
Speaking about a performance that was the antithesis to the football club of his youth, FC Barcelona, Bengaluru head coach Carles Cuadrat took comfort in familiar phrases, as managers are wont to. "Football is a game of circumstances. Ours is very different from theirs. I come from Barcelona, we can talk a lot about football, about the game. When you really know the game, you know that you have to manage some situations," he said. Before adding bits about how "his players played with all their heart," how "it was not easy against a top team."
Face lined with worry, shoulders slumped unnaturally (for such a jovial character), he also spoke about how his players were all playing for him, how the reason he was coaching at the club was because they had thought of him as a "good option after [Albert] Roca", that "they are doing whatever I ask them to do on the pitch." He took pains to point out how happy he was that Sunil Chhetri had come over to celebrate their goal with him. A man under extreme pressure, spelling it out to people outside and in, that he had the backing of his team, that he was going nowhere. For now, though, the result does all the talking for him. #CarlesOut? Not yet, amigo.
The margin of victory, courtesy a scrappy Deshorn Brown goal means the tie is far from over, but Cuadrat will remain confident of seeing this through. That is just how hard his side have been to break down all season long. Sure, there has been the occasional blip (most notably against Maziya in the AFC Cup), but a record of 13 goals conceded in 20 league games speaks for itself.
As does this performance.
A grumpy Antonio Habas, the head coach of ATK, muttered that his team had been better over the ninety, that it was his team that "played football", that seeing how the 90 minutes had panned out from the touchline, he was confident of winning at home in the return leg. There was exasperation in his gestures, in his tone. In between statements and questions, he kept reverting to his "better football" argument. Calling him a frustrated man does his mood a disservice.
Facing a side that packed their own half in a supremely defensive 5-4-1 formation, his normally fluent ATK attacking unit found themselves lost for ideas. The muscle of Erik Paartalu and Juanan, the bite of Dimas Delgado and Suresh Wangjam, throwing them off their game. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had nary a thing to do all night -- ATK had just one shot on target, one that Gurpreet handled with a yawn and a snap of his fingers.
David Williams did have a goal disallowed for handball -- a move that came from the near telepathic understanding he seems to share with fellow striker Roy Krishna -- but apart from that one instance, the two could rarely combine. They were, quite literally, physically kept apart by a stubborn wall of blue. Even after Nishu Kumar's sending off, they barely got into the Bengaluru box.
In the stands, a lively section clad in the red and white of ATK had been kicking up quite a racket in the early stages of the game, but as attack after ATK attack fizzled out on the field, they fell silent. Not even the rare glimpses of hope -- a decent Prabir Das cross, a darting Krishna run, an optimistic Edu Garcia punt -- elicited any response.
Meanwhile, in the home crowd, the drums, and the singing, and the swearing-at-the-referee went from loud to louder with every passing minute -- each block, each tackle met with thunderous roars as the Kanteerava stadium rose to the occasion. Just like their team. As embodied by their captain. 35 years old, best player in India for nigh on a decade now, just recovered from a hamstring injury - Chhetri spent the night sprinting up and down his flank, snapping into tackles, chasing lost causes, harrying the ATK midfield.
It comes naturally to this club. This fight. Six years do not yield six trophies without a certain level of tenacity and a 'come on, bring it' mentality seeping into your soul. Right now, they are at their most stubborn. When you score just 22 goals in 18 matches, 23 in 19 now, you need to be, to stand a chance at the business end of things.
"That's always the worry, that we've not scored a lot of goals this year," says Paartalu after the match, before continuing with a grin, "but also, we're conceding hardly any as well. That's credit to the coach." He then makes an observation that puts quite a bit into context -- the approach to games, the coach's demeanour, the abandonment of that oft-stated notion of 'footballing philosophy', of the 'right way to play.' "[Cuadrat] has been very... adaptable -- I suppose that is the word to use -- for the league itself. I think a lot of teams have done well on the counter attack and if you see [a team like] Goa, they always keep possession, but they haven't won a final yet."
Winning here means adapting to circumstances -- to personnel, to conditions, to opposition. Bengaluru, domestically at least, have proven time and again that they are capable of it. "Who knows what the 'right way to play' is?" Paartalu shrugs.
As long as they end season seven of their existence with a seventh trophy, no one associated with the club will care all that much either. However slender it may be, however pragmatic they have had to be to achieve it, it's advantage Bengaluru FC as they prepare for Sunday, March 8, when they will go to war with ATK for one more chance to do just that.