On a noisy night at the Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru FC (BFC) began life in the Indian Super League (ISL) in style, beating 2016 table-toppers Mumbai City FC 2-0. In particular, the moment the result was sealed by BFC captain Sunil Chhetri stood out for its poignancy.
Brought into play first by a powerful goal-kick by Gurpreet Sandhu, Chhetri pressured defender Mehrajuddin Wadoo enough to cause Chhetri's former BFC teammate Amrinder Singh to come charging out from goal to back Wadoo up. Instead, Amrinder's clearance bounced off Wadoo and fell close enough for Chhetri to create some space for himself, and then release a perfectly-paced chip past Wadoo into a net left vacant by the goalkeeper.
Even as his team charged towards him, Chhetri kept indicating he would not celebrate this goal, coming as it did against his old club in the ISL. He must have enjoyed the moment, though, as he raised his arms to greet the crowd shortly after.
The stakes are high for BFC this time around. They have taken a bold step - one bigger and older Indian clubs considered but decided against - and know just how much their presence adds credibility to what has been a pilot-project of a league thus far. The name of Sunil Chhetri is a big part of that credibility.
Chhetri's own history in the ISL is patchy - he was a star for Mumbai on his debut in the 2015 season, scoring the first hat-trick by an Indian in the league in a 5-1 win over NorthEast United in Mumbai. Somehow, his game didn't impress then player-manager Nicolas Anelka enough, who was quoted as saying, "When I came to India from England, I did not know him. They said he was a left-winger and a striker. There are better players to play in the middle than him. If he is not happy, then that is life."
Last year, Mumbai made the playoffs with Chhetri only playing six games, busy with BFC's AFC Cup campaign for most part, and contributing no goals.
Chhetri, though, remains one of India's best, and showed that quality on the pitch on Sunday. Some of the balls he released from the middle of the pitch, especially for the energetic Udanta Singh on the right, were exceptional. Just as special was his link-up play with Venezuelan striker Miku The latter missed a few chances and also shot some straight at Amrinder, but importantly he was getting into good positions, and even more significantly, Chhetri always had an idea of where his strike-partner was.
When he wasn't on the ball, Chhetri was his usual tenacious terrier self, dropping deep to win challenges, organising his team's midfield to keep Mumbai from dictating the pace of the game. It was a physically intense contest, especially in the first 45 minutes. As has often been the case at the Kanteerava, Chhetri was calm but firm in leading his team, ensuring that none of his players were getting tempted into tackles borne out of retribution that become common in such situations.
An attacking player's biggest currency will always remain goals, though, and that's where Chhetri will be satisfied with his opening night. There will be matches where he might fail to find the net, and some where Roca might feel tempted to rest him and keep him fresh for what promises to be a long season, with AFC Cup commitments thrown in.
You won't be able to fault him for lack of effort, though. And for that attribute alone, he will be Bengaluru's most valuable asset as they make a bid for the playoffs on debut this season.