"We were wondering what we were going to do after the league stage finished," said Sunil Chhetri in a post-match interview after Bengaluru FC beat Mumbai City FC on penalties to reach the Indian Super League (ISL) final. And who could blame him for wondering that? After 12 ISL games this season, Bengaluru were languishing in ninth, having only earned 10 points until then.
In 2023, Bengaluru took the internet's favourite "new year, new me" trend to a whole new level altogether. They won 10 games on the spin, then 'lost' a semifinal home leg for the first time ever, but won a penalty shootout to book their spot in a third ISL final.
This is the story of a comeback for the ages. A week before it began, Cleiton Silva dealt Bengaluru what seemed a fatal blow with a 90th-minute free-kick that gave East Bengal a 2-1 win at the Salt Lake stadium.
NorthEast United 1-2 Bengaluru FC
Against the league's bottom-placed side, Bengaluru huffed and puffed, finding inspiration from Sivasakthi Narayanan's first ISL goal, before quickly conceding an equaliser. Then, in injury time, Alan Costa's head met an Udanta Singh cross for a winner that Chhetri, Aleksandar Jovanovic and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu all acknowledged was the turning point of their season.
Alan Costa's header wins it for @bengalurufc at the death! 🔵⚽#NEUBFC #HeroISL #LetsFootball #BengaluruFC #AlanCosta pic.twitter.com/neG0hlsqcD
- Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) January 6, 2023
Bengaluru FC 3-1 Odisha FC
Two goals in three first-half minutes set Bengaluru on their way as they sought to prove that the win in Guwahati was not a false dawn. A passing accuracy of 56% showed that work was still to be done.
Jamshedpur FC 0-3 Bengaluru FC
Bengaluru had 10 shots. Jamshedpur had 25. Yet, they won 3-0. This game was a clear sign that the belief was returning, even though the 2.77 xG they conceded might have pointed to some underlying problems.
The Blues' ⭐boy with yet another sensational performance! 🤩#JFCBFC #HeroISL #LetsFootball #BengaluruFC #Sivasakthi pic.twitter.com/McTwGJjJw3
- Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) January 18, 2023
Bengaluru FC 3-1 Chennaiyin FC
When you're gifted goals by the opposition, you take it with glee. Bengaluru had only seven shots to Chennaiyin's 14, but Sivasakthi's first-half brace had done the job long before Chennaiyin even started playing.
ATK Mohun Bagan 1-2 Bengaluru FC
From Cleiton's heartbreaker to this trip to the Salt Lake, Bengaluru had turned their season around through sheer belief. This match was when they turned their performances around for good. They were much the better side, Javi Hernandez and Roy Krishna scored excellent goals, and now one truly got the feeling that Bengaluru were onto something special.
Bengaluru 1-0 Kerala Blasters FC
Their arch-rivals came, the Kanteerava was more yellow than it was blue. Those Blasters' faithful were silenced by a moment of Roy Krishna inspiration.
🆒 CALM finish from @RoyKrishna21! 😎@bengalurufc take the lead in #BFCKBFC! 🔵⚽
Watch the game live on @StarSportsIndia, @DisneyPlusHS: https://t.co/3XFx1mKWgu and @OfficialJioTV
Live Updates: https://t.co/mdnixyEEww#HeroISL #LetsFootball #BengaluruFC #KeralaBlasters pic.twitter.com/cmzXI1YSTX
- Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) February 11, 2023
Bengaluru FC 2-1 Mumbai City FC
Sunil Chhetri. First start in 47 days. Only 37 minutes played in six games previously. No fuss, he's still the man. Mumbai City? No longer invincible.
Bengaluru FC 3-1 Goa
As if we needed confirmation, Bengaluru made another statement that they were the league's form team heading into the playoffs. There was some dodgy officiating to put them 2-1 up, but they played enough good football to beat a desperate Goa side anyway.
Knockout: Bengaluru FC 1-0 Kerala Blasters FC
Where do we even start? This again? Chhetri's genius, Ivan Vukomanovic's out-of-character walkout, another ISL semi for Bengaluru.
Semifinal: Bengaluru beat Mumbai City 9-8 on pens (2-2 agg.)
In the first leg, that little man did what he does so often. Somehow unmarked, somehow the man meeting a set-piece. Sunil Chhetri was the difference-maker, aging like fine wine.
In the second leg, a Kanteerava night for the ages boiled down to Gurpreet Singh Sandhu v Phurba Lachenpa. With a stunning penalty save off Greg Stewart in the first half, and then one off Mehtab Singh in the shootout, this was Gurpreet's night. India's #1 put the stamp on this Bengaluru FC story.
A 🔝-notch performance which included crucial penalty saves earned @GurpreetGK the Hero of the Match for #BFCMCFC! 💥🔵#HeroISL #HeroISLPlayoffs #LetsFootball #BengaluruFC #GurpreetSingh pic.twitter.com/AU1JeZsEA7
- Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) March 12, 2023
A final chapter awaits at Fatorda on March 18.