The 131st edition of Asia's oldest club football competition had a fine finale to it at the Salt Lake Stadium on Sunday, with Bengaluru FC winning the Durand Cup after a 2-1 win over Mumbai City FC.
Before that, some ISL heavyweights lived up to that billing, some faltered, an I-League side created a flutter and announced their arrival, a once-giant took strides towards the top again: the Durand Cup had it all this year. 130 goals in 47 matches meant that the tournament was an entertaining watch as well, with the crowds in the three venues (Kolkata, Imphal, and Guwahati) mostly getting their money's worth.
We muse on Durand Cup 2022:
The two finalists were the best teams in the tournament. The contrast in styles between Bengaluru and Mumbai City couldn't be starker, but that made for a riveting contest in the final.
Under Simon Grayson, Bengaluru seem to have ditched the attempted high-pressing ways brought by Marco Pezzaiuoli last season in favour of a solid-defence and counter-attacking structure, and that's brought success back. This was their first trophy in 1,281 days - a mini-drought has ended.
Mumbai City, meanwhile, stuck to their CFG-inspired principles of possession and ball retention. The addition of Greg Stewart and Alberto Noguera have given them more guile in the final third, while the pace of Bipin Singh and Lallianzuala Chhangte remained an ever-present danger.
Josep Gombau is back at the helm at Odisha, and has got them playing some slick football again. They didn't concede a goal in the group stage, and it took a Roy Krishna belter in the last minute of extra-time to knock them out in the quarterfinals.
Mohammedan Sporting also deserve a mention, having only narrowly been beaten in the semis by Mumbai City. Led by the inspirational Marcus Joseph and spurred on by their raucous support in Kolkata, they more than matched up to the two finalists, having earlier taken a point against Bengaluru in the group stages.
Greg Stewart just picked up from where he left off last season. Elusive, two-footed, and with the ability to drift all across the final third, Stewart has it all. Eventually, with six goals in the tournament, Stewart finished as the second highest-scorer. But his contribution to Mumbai City went beyond the goals he scored, with his incredible eye for a pass always ensuring that the wide players and fellow new signing Jorge Pereyra Diaz were constant threats as well.
Lallianzuala Chhangte is good at football. Did it need reminding? Maybe, it did? For a player of his calibre, scoring only five goals in the last two ISL seasons just didn't seem to do his talent justice.
����. ���������������� ✨��
- Mumbai City FC (@MumbaiCityFC) September 15, 2022
But in Mumbai City, Chhangte might have just found the ideal environment for his ability and skill to translate into tangible output. With seven goals in the Durand Cup, he won the Golden Boot. In a shift from the role he majorly played for Chennaiyin FC, Des Buckingham employs Chhangte on the right wing, enabling him to cut inside on to his stronger left foot. Hopefully, for him, this tournament is the launch-pad for bigger things to come in the ISL.
Find of the Tournament
Sivasakthi Narayanan. The young Bengaluru striker had always been spoken about as a huge prospect, but he's here, and how! It's not easy to break into a front two that has Roy Krishna and Sunil Chhetri in it, but Sivasakthi did just that - in a final, no less.
The super-sub became a starter in the final and his eye for goal and instinctive finishing didn't change. It's one thing to have the audacity to shove away Mourtada Fall and attempt that chipped finish for his goal in the final, it's quite something else to have the ability to pull it off.
Ability, mentality, intelligence, the young man has it all.
You might have been excused for not paying much attention to Rajasthan United before the tournament, especially after they were drawn in the same group as Mumbai City, ATK Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. But after their first game, the I-League side demanded it.
A stunning comeback win over Juan Ferrando's expensively-assembled squad, a draw against East Bengal, and then a win against the Indian Navy meant that Rajasthan qualified for the knockout stage ahead of the two Kolkata giants. Their journey ended at the hands of Hyderabad, but this was a team that was telling Indian football that they are not here just to make up the numbers.
The GOAT completes the set
Sunil Chhetri's professional career has spanned more than a couple of decades, and he had won everything on offer in India... except the Durand Cup. Until Sunday night, that is. This is now his seventh trophy with Bengaluru.
Two decades is a bit of a wait, but if it meant doing it in the blue of Bengaluru, then it was worth every season of trying. Durand Cup Champions - would have been a shame if an Army kid playing football professionally never had the chance to say this. ��
Come on, BFC! pic.twitter.com/Uw6itY2JKJ
- Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11) September 18, 2022
Why? Just, why?
- Out of Context Indian Football (@oocsevensftbl) September 18, 2022
What next? (For the Durand Cup)
Long may it continue this way, with the calendar working out such that it is a pre-season tournament for the ISL and the I-League. Seeing the progress that the likes of Bengaluru and Mumbai made over the course of the competition, it could set the precedent for all ISL clubs to use their first-team squads for this competition next year, which would only make it an even better spectacle.
What next? (For Indian Football)
There are a couple of friendlies for the senior men's national team against Singapore and Vietnam before we come back to club football (ISL starts on 7 October), but the form and fitness that the players have built over the course of the tournament is a massive boost for coach Igor Stimac.
Stimac has often complained of players coming into the national team camp undercooked because of the large gap between seasons, but that's not going to be the case now.