Bengaluru: Bengaluru – the football club and the city – rose to the occasion yet again, as Carles Cuadrat’s men beat NorthEast United and the odds to make it to the final of the Indian Super League for a second successive season. Talismanic striker Miku made amends for a string of missed chances in the first half, with a goal (72nd), before Dimas Delgado got one for himself to turn the aggregate in the Blues’ favour. (87’). Sunil Chhetri (90+2’) then added one for good measure as Bengaluru ran out 3-0 winners on the night, to progress to the final with a 4-2 aggregate scoreline.
In a bid to accommodate Xisco Hernandez in the midfield behind Miku, Cuadrat pulled Harmanjot Khabra from the middle and drafted him at the right-back position, while Rahul Bheke joined Juanan in the centre of defence, ahead of Albert Serran, who dropped to the bench.
NorthEast United, meanwhile, chose to start with striker Juan Mascia and midfielder Fanai Lalrempuia in place of Bartholomew Ogbeche and Rowllin Borges – both of who picked up hamstring injuries in Guwahati. Eelco Schattorie, however, had to deal with a situation minutes from kick-off after his captain and left-back, Robert Lalthlamuana pulled out with an injury during warm-ups. The Dutchman was left with little choice but to replace Lalthlamuana with former Bengaluru man, Keegan Pereira.
Knowing exactly what’s needed of them, and with a clock to beat, the Blues put the NorthEast defence to the sword without allowing the visitors any room to settle. But it was a half where Bengaluru, and Miku in particular, inexplicably failed to stick the ball in the back of the net, not once, but three times. The Venezuelan striker first headed an in-swinging cross from Nishu Kumar wide, then minutes later fired over after Udanta Singh picked him with the perfect cut-back in the box. But it was the third miss that had the Kanteerava gasp in collective disbelief. In what would have been the goal of the season, Miku magically weaved past five red shirts and found himself with only Pawan Kumar to beat, before shooting tamely and straight at the NorthEast ’keeper.
Bengaluru began the second half with as much urgency, pushing the visitors to concede a flurry of corners. If Miku missed what could have been the goal of the season, a blinding save by Pawan denied Nishu his entry to the contest in the 51st minute. Picking up a clearance from the NorthEast box, Nishu smashed the ball that flew like an arrow towards the goal, only for Pawan to tip it over while in full flight.
With a little more than twenty minutes left on the clock, Cuadrat took his first gamble, pulling off Juanan Gonzalez for Luisma Villa and Bengaluru would find the net only moments later. Bringing down a lob over from Dimas, Xisco played the pass back to Udanta, who swung a cross into the area that Miku met with the deftest of touches. Flicking it with the outside of his right ankle, the Venezuelan sent the ball far past the reach of Pawan and shot Bengaluru into the lead. Earlier, NorthEast United were dealt a blow as Uruguayan striker Federico Gallego was stretchered off after his attempt to block Miku’s shot.
With the scoreline enough to send Bengaluru through to the final, Cuadrat sent on Serran to replace Xisco, adding reinforcements at the back. But the Blues refused to sit back and added another just 15 minutes later through Dimas. Set free on the counter, Udanta turned on his turbos to skip past Keegan and then send a cross that Pawan could only tip onto his bar. With the ball bouncing back into play, Dimas arrived to place his shot past Pawan and double the Blues’ advantage.
With six minutes of time added on, NorthEast looked to score a goal to take the tie into extra time, and the Blues took advantage of the visitors’ high line once again. Chhetri, regaining possession in midfield, played a quick give-and-go with Miku to beat the offside trap and run through on goal. Up against Pawan and with time on his hands, Chhetri feinted once and pushed the ball past the advancing NorthEast custodian, and then slotted home to make it 3-0 on the night and send Bengaluru through to the final.
Bengaluru will face one of Mumbai City FC or FC Goa in the showpiece event, set to take place at the Mumbai Football Arena, on March 17th.