ISL: Kattimani completes hero transformation as Hyderabad knock ATK Mohun Bagan out

Hyderabad FC goalkeeper Laxmikant Kattimani celebrates after his team made it to the final. Faheem Hussain/Focus Sports/ ISL

When Roy Krishna connected with the whipped in ball from Prabir Das, his eyes lit up. It was the kind of connection that helped Krishna to 163 goals in 295 matches, 35 of those coming in the ISL. This is a man who knows where the goal is, so when his boot connected, everyone accepted it was going to be 1-0 to ATK Mohun Bagan. Everyone apart from Laxmikant Kattimani that is. Now, Das' cross had such power, Krishna's redirection such accuracy that the Hyderabad goalkeeper had just 0.28 seconds to respond before the ball reached him. Can any of us really comprehend just how quick that is? It's about as long as a blink lasts. What can you possibly do in that kind of timeframe?

Well, if you're Kattimani, you raise your arm just so to intercept the ball, making sure it's strong enough, stable enough for the ball to bounce off it and over the crossbar. As he pulled it off, Krishna's incredulous smile was all of us. His congratulatory hug, a pure moment of sporting respect, the kind where match situation, intensity, fractiousness, none of it mattered.

And it was an intense, fractious game. Hyderabad came into this second leg of the second semifinal of the season leading ATK Mohun Bagan 3-1 from the first. Bagan had responded with the urgency that the state of play demanded, going at it from the off. Liston Colaco ran at them from the left. Krishna buzzed around the penalty box. Hugo Boumous and Joni Kauko pushed everyone into the Hyderabad defensive third from the middle. Kiyan Nassiri... ah, he was rather wasted down the right wing. They kept coming at Hyderabad, and the wall of yellow, led by Kattimani, kept repelling them. Krishna did get his goal, after more good work from Colaco, but that was to be it on the night.

The backline of Nim Dorjee, Juanan Gonzalez, Sana Singh and Akash Mishra were stubborn and quite brilliant. Everybody else in front of them ran their socks off trying to ward off wave after wave of attack.

Kattimani, meanwhile, had one of the best games of a career that seemed like it would just fade away a couple of years ago.

If you'd told the average ISL fan back then that Kattimani would be the man of the match in such a crucial match, they'd have laughed you out of the park. For years, the average Kattimani season compilation would have slips, a fumbling ball, shots going almost through him, passing the ball straight back to a striker, rash tackles when one-on-one. In his first ISL final (2015), for instance, he saved a penalty (but conceded off the rebound), saved another (which he had given away), came for a cross and completely missed it, and then was nutmegged for the winning goal after he slipped as he backtracked toward the goal line. Chennaiyin won that game, beating Kattimani's Goa 3-2, the winning goal coming in the 91st minute.

Ups, and a whole lot of downs, soundtracked to the laughter of a cruel world. From 2014 to 2020, in six seasons of ISL football, he kept six cleansheets. In his first year at Hyderabad (2020), he conceded 13 in just six matches. Errors as present as ever. Then something changed. Manolo Marquez came in, and as Hyderabad as a team went from laughing stock to serious contenders, his game improved with it. The skill was always there, but now he had the consistency to showcase it. In the last two seasons, he's kept nine cleansheets.

Just before the save-of-the-season off Krishna, Kattimani had pulled off another incredible save, stretching out a leg to divert a Juanan block from two yards out. The reflexes required to adjust his body (he had been preparing for Colaco's original shot), the skill required to thrust out a leg and deflect it wide... sensational.

Sensational, and underrated. Igor Stimac recently slammed every keeper in the league bar Kerala Blaster's Prabhsukhan Singh Gill. He didn't mention the fact that Kattimani has been the best keeper in the league. It's simply gone unnoticed.

Not noticing him will be hard now, though. It's Hyderabad's first ISL final. Kattimani, meanwhile, returns to Indian football's most high profile stage after a long, long seven years. It's been a tough road back up to the top but he's most certainly there now. As Krishna said without saying anything in the aftermath of that save... This man's a keeper.