ISL final: Vishal Kaith the hero as ATK Mohun Bagan triumph

In slow motion, Pablo Perez fell on his knees; hands on head, eyes moist and a look of despair on his face. In warp speed, a bunch of green-and-maroon shirts sprinted past him and jumped on the goalkeeper Vishal Kaith; ATK Mohun Bagan’s Mr. Reliable was buried in a mountain of bodies.

Kaith’s remarkable save followed by Perez’s missed penalty meant ATK Mohun Bagan won their first-ever Indian Super League crown on Saturday, beating Bengaluru FC 4-3 in shootouts. The see-sawing final, which ended in a 2-2 draw after extra time, came down to a battle of wits between arguably two of the best goalkeepers in the country: Kaith, who won the golden glove this season for the most number of clean sheets, and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who had made the most number of saves.

But it was Kaith, who has been ignored from the national team in spite of his fine form, who emerged on top at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Madgaon. The 26-year-old guessed correctly the direction in which Bengaluru’s Bruno Silva was planning to slot his penalty and made a full-length dive to palm it away from the goal.

The save swung the momentum in the favour of Bagan, who did not miss even one spot kick. And even though Sunil Chhetri converted the next one with his trademark one-step kick to keep Bengaluru in the hunt, Perez succumbed under pressure as he sent the ball high over the crossbar and into the stands.

Bengaluru’s night ended just the way it had begun: in agony.

On a high after winning 10 out of 11 matches this calendar year, the former champions and the unlikely finalists had the worst possible start to the final. Inside the opening two minutes, their young sensation Sivasakthi Narayanan, named the ISL’s emerging player of the season on the eve of the final, went all-in for a tackle in the attacking third. In the process, the 21-year-old ended up getting a knock on the nose and he left the pitch on a stretcher, his nose bloodied.

As Siva was taken to the hospital, Chhetri came on as a substitute, a role he has played frequently this season. Grayson has used the 38-year-old sparingly, getting him on as an impact sub late in the match. It might not be a role Chhetri loves to play but he’s often made a difference, like in the semifinals against Mumbai City.

In a nervy final, to have Chhetri’s nous and experience for almost the entire match may have seemed like an ideal scenario for Bengaluru but it was also a Catch-22 scenario – while the India captain is a constant threat in the box, Siva’s absence meant Bengaluru didn’t have enough pace to get behind the ATK backline.

Bagan’s defence and midfield lines operated so close that they stifled Bengaluru for space. The pattern was set in the early exchanges: Bengaluru would keep the ball, Bagan would look to hit them on the counter. But Bengaluru stacking five men in the middle and Bagan retreating into their own half meant the Blues found it tough to create any meaningful moves through a crowded midfield and were left playing among themselves, passing horizontally and never really threatening the Bagan goal.

Having successfully blunted Bengaluru’s style, Bagan were sharp on transitions and it was the former Bengaluru man Ashique Kuruniyan who wreaked havoc on the flanks with his speed. Kuruniyan made incisive runs from the left wing, skipping past defenders as if they didn’t exist and whipping in crosses for Bagan’s target man Dmitri Petratos. In the 14th minute, he ventured into the box and got involved in an aerial duel with Roy Krishna, who – under pressure to keep the ball away from Kuruniyan – ended up handling it, thus giving away a penalty to Bagan. Petratos stepped up and found the side netting, giving Sandhu no chance to make a save.

Krishna made amends for his early mistake by winning a penalty in added time of the first half, which was duly converted by Chhetri. Late in the second period, the Fijian attacker leapt the highest in a crowded box to head home a corner from Roshan Naorem to put Bengaluru in front against his former club with less than 15 minutes left to play.

Their joy, though, was short-lived as the referee awarded a controversial penalty to Bagan in the 85th minute after Kiyan Giri was adjudged to have been brought down inside the box, although the replays suggested the initial contact might have been just outside. Petratos, nevertheless, stepped up and once again beat Sandhu to level the scores and force the match into extra time, where Bagan had a golden chance to seal the tie but forward Manvir Singh missed an open header.

The missed chance, however, didn’t cost Bagan who held their nerves in the shootout to claim their maiden title.

Final score: ATK Mohun Bagan 2 (Petratos 14’-p, 85’-p) Bengaluru FC 2 (Chhetri 45+5’-p, Krishna 78’) a.e.t.


Bengaluru: Alan Costa, Roy Krishna, Bruno Silva (miss), Sunil Chhetri, Pablo Perez (miss)

ATK Mohun Bagan: Dmitri Petratos, Liston Colaco, Kiyan Giri, Manvir Singh

ATK Mohun Bagan win 4-3

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