BENGALURU -- As Sunil Chhetri slotted home a late winner for Bengaluru FC (BFC) against Mohammad Nawaz in the FC Goa goal at the Kanteerava Stadium, bounding past four opponents in white that chased a shadow in vain, he quickly aborted his celebration and pointed to a young teammate in the throes of a cramp midway through the pitch.
Chhetri ran all the way back and gave a hug to Ashique Kuruniyan, a pre-season transfer from FC Pune City, who has been used in a number of positions by coach Carles Cuadrat but hadn't hit the straps yet before Friday evening.
"We have been firing Ashique from day one. We've been telling him, 'You've been letting all our money go waste. We've spent so much money on you -- there's no goals and assists,'" joked Chhetri about what he told Ashique, who held the ball for a couple of seconds on a typical BFC counter, before releasing Chhetri for his goal-bound run, all the way from the edge of the BFC penalty box.
Ashique punched the air in celebration as the ball rolled into the net, but collapsed in pain and was getting his leg stretched out by centre-back Juanan when Chhetri came over to greet him. "Thankfully, he got this assist, and hopefully this will open the door for him," said Chhetri.
It was that kind of a night for BFC. Starting out trailing Goa at the top of the table by five points, there was no flow to the game in the first half. Goa seemed intent on matching BFC on playing the waiting game, leading to a lot of futile stages of possession for both teams.
Chhetri took the game by the scruff of the neck with a superb header, floating in from way outside the penalty box. It may not have been 'Cristiano Ronaldo hanging eight feet high for three seconds' stuff, but through the night, Chhetri leapt high in the air and contested aerial duels with Goa centre-backs Mourtada Fall and Carlos Pena. He may not have won every one of them, but he made his presence felt, reminding Goa that there was a keen contest on.
It was a tense night at the Kanteerava, with Cuadrat and Goa assistant coach Jesus Tato repeatedly laying into the officiating and sometimes at each other's technical areas. Brandon Fernandes tried once to make the most of a light contact with Harmanjot Khabra, and both sets of players were unapologetic about professional fouls.
When Chhetri had neutralised Hugo Boumous' outstanding equaliser, he quickly sprinted back into his half, and then nudged an opponent over to break the flow of play. "The way they came back wasn't ideal. I thought after the first goal we could hold back, but they are a good side," said Chhetri, explaining why he enjoyed scoring the second goal more. "[A] one-two, great pass by Coro, and Boumous with a great finish. That's what they are capable of. You never know where they can create chances."
It wasn't as if Chhetri was the lone contributor on the night -- Juanan and Albert Serran were compact at the heart of defence, while Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had another good game under the bar. BFC wouldn't be close to competing without his goals, though. His seven goals have pulled him level with Coro, just one behind ATK's Roy Krishna.
The captain was humble when asked about what it is about big nights at the Kanteerava and how it brings out the best in him.
"I have always maintained that I am blessed to be playing for this team. I am just the one who takes the cherry," he says. "I am just the guy who at the end, signs it.