In the end it was down to the two best footballers on the pitch. The score was what it was because of those two: Phurba Lachenpa and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
Eventually, it was decided by the man who's been India's #1 for about a decade now. The man who had started the game with a penalty save (12th minute, Greg Stewart; and the follow-up from Lallianzuala Chhangte) ended it with another.
After a frantic, end-to-end match ended 2-1 in Mumbai's favour in the 90, and then the 120, tying the scores up at 2-2 on aggregate, it was down to an absolute nail-biter of a penalty shootout. One after the other they stepped up, and one after the other they dispatched perfect penalty after perfect penalty - side netting, roof of the net, more side netting. They had to be, because were you to give these two keepers a sniff - they'd eat you up.
Which is what Mehtab Singh, the man who had leapt high to make it 2-1, did. And Gurpreet Singh Sandhu ate him up. Mehtab had placed his shot low and hard, but Gurpreet had guessed right. Nothing was going to get past him once he got that first decision right. Sandesh Jhingan stepped up, sent Phurba Lachenpa the wrong way and that was that. 9-8 on penalties, yet another Bengaluru win (technically a loss on the night, ending their run of wins at 10), and a remarkable renaissance that has now reached the apex of this season's final.
The Moment @SandeshJhingan won it for @bengalurufc! ����#BFCMCFC #HeroISL #HeroISLPlayoffs #HeroISLFinal #LetsFootball #BengaluruFC #MumbaiCityFC pic.twitter.com/OmcQWv81st
- Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) March 12, 2023
"I got really close with, I think three of the penalties - Greg [Stewart], [Jorge]Diaz and Rahul [Bheke], but their quality was so high. They were shooting it right at the side netting," said Gurpreet, after the match.
Penalty shootouts are a cruel, cruel phenomena - often leaving the people least deserving to suffer, doing just that at the end. Mehtab, the goalscorer, had put in an excellent shift all night. Yet, most of all it was the sight of Phurba, slumped on the goalline, and then sitting alone in the dugout that spoke to the cruelty of it all.
He had been in stunning form all night, sweeping high up behind the Mumbai defence to keep the counterattacking threat of Mumbai quiet, passing brilliantly out of the back, but most of all pulling off a few saves of astonishing quality. Thrice he kept out Javi Hernandez from shots with which Javi had been sure he had scored: two shots low to his left, another flying and stretching wide to his right. As Gurpreet said, "I thought Lachenpa was really good," before adding that it had been his saves that had kept Mumbai in it, "that's why the game went on for as long as it did!"
He may have brushed off his performance with a "yeah, it was okay, I made a couple of saves," but Gurpreet had been immense too. He had been the guilty party for that early Mumbai penalty, diving rashly at Jorge Pereyra Diaz' feet, and it looked for a good two minutes that he might have been concussed; but he shook it off. First came the save from the penalty -- diving low to his left, pushing it wide and then getting to his feet immediately to close down and save Chhangte's attempt at the rebound.
Bengaluru boss Simon Grayson would say, after the match, that the save had given the whole team an extra lift. "I gave the penalty away in the first place, na" Gurpreet said; the unsaid bit being 'obviously I had to make up for it.'
"In my mind, it was just to make it as hard as possible for Greg, choose one side and go as late as possible. And the same for Mehtab".
Neither keeper could do much about the goals - the Bengaluru one was set up by some excellent work from Sivasakthi down the left and finished off by Javi with a precise header. For Mumbai's opener, Gurpreet did well to block Rowllin Borges' close-range shot (one-on-one), but could do little about Bipin Singh's tap-in. Nor could he do much when Mehtab escaped his marker and got an unmarked header in at the near post.
The outfielders had their moments too: Stewart pulling off a flick of such dexterity that he made Rohit Kumar tackle his teammate, Roshan Singh; Ahmed Jahouh pinging 60m cross-field passes that only he (and his runner) could see with a lazy wave of his right boot; Javi setting up a shot with a touch of almost divine inspiration; Roy Krishna absolutely bullying everything in his path, an instance where he threw Stewart around like a rag doll a particular highlight.
It was a match that had quality all through; and the excitement rarely dipped. It wasn't one of those dull drab affairs that end in a never-ending penalty shootout, but even then, it was the goalkeepers who stood out.
It was only fitting that it was them who took the spotlight at the end.