It must have been the claustrophobia that did Ahmed Jahouh in the end. Harried and hustled all night by wolf-packs of Bengaluru players, he’d been eased out of the pitch by a couple of them while making a run by the touchline before being brought down by Miku. The frustration from being denied time on the ball and having passing lanes closed for 105 minutes finally showed and Goa’s majestic midfield maestro was reduced to instinctively kicking out as he fell. The Venezuelan made the most of it, as players are wont to do these days, but Jahouh’s evening was done.
Both teams came into the final not so much to play as to stop the other team from playing. Bengaluru had advertised their game plan all season. As assistant to Albert Roca last year, Carles Cuadrat had learnt all too well that the best team doesn’t necessarily win tournaments; the ones that makes the least mistakes do. And while Roca’s spirit still resides within this group, they’ve focused on coaxing errors out of their opponents in this campaign; to good effect.
That pragmatism hasn’t been as pronounced in Sergio Lobera’s team this year even though it was plainly obvious to everyone that they could do with some of it. He had identified central defence rather than his philosophy to be the problem and Mourtada Fall showed all season that he was possibly right. The purist had realized to his credit though (two league defeats helped) that he would have to match Bengaluru play-for-play in the final.
Space was afforded on the flanks (not too much as Jahouh would attest), but the route to goal through the middle of the park was arduous. The wingers from both sides tucked in when they did not have the ball and the opposite number tens sat on Jahouh and Dimas Delgado, orchestrators of each team’s build-up play, pushing them deeper than they would have liked.
It resulted in a final that relied for the most part on half-chances for its thrills. Only six out of twenty-four shots were allowed to find their target and with space and time at a premium, those efforts mostly resulted from the ball falling kindly after an almighty scuffle. It was only in the 81stminute that a magic touch from Xisco, with Fall bearing down on him in the box, opened space for Miku but his left-footed effort from the outside of the foot curved away ever so slightly and hit the base of the post.
With extra time a minute away, some of the endeavor slipped and a chance apiece was created at each end, as if tired bodies could not take more of this slugfest but then normal service resumed after the break. With neither team giving an inch, a penalty shoot-out loomed and both managers made their substitutions. No one was winning this heavy-weight bout and the judges had all but scored it a tie.
In the 117thminute however, Rahul Bheke managed to peel away from a sea of humanity at a corner. He found himself near the edge of the 22-yard box when he guided a looping header towards the corner of the goal. Naveen Kumar took off but could only get the edge of his fingertips onto the ball and it went in off the inside of the post. A centimeter inwards and the ball would have been palmed away. It had been that kind of night. A game of inches decided by the proverbial whisker. Bengaluru were champions.