Bengaluru FC defeated Mumbai City in the first leg of their Indian Super League semifinal 1-0, thanks to a 78th minute goal from Sunil Chhetri. The result hands BFC the advantage going into the second leg at the Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru on March 12.
1. Sunil Chhetri, again and again and again
He may have a 38-year-old body, but the neurons of Sunil Chhetri's brain are firing at a scarcely believable rate. His stroke of genius a few nights back proved controversial against Kerala Blasters, but there was only admiration tonight. Even before he scored the goal for Bengaluru, Chhetri proved to be quite the spark for them, with impudent flicks and trademark hunger lifting his teammates around him.
The goal he scored was vintage Chhetri - floating in the box, sniffing out the smallest of gaps as Mumbai City's zonal defence lost sight of him for the second time in as many games. Naorem Roshan, who had been impressive with his deliveries into the box all night, did not disappoint, sending in a pin-point delivery from the corner to the near post. Chhetri, ever present, ever alert, was the first to the ball and headed it home past Lallianzuala Chhangte on the near post.
That big head keeps delivering big goals ��@chetrisunil11 | #MCFCBFC #ISL pic.twitter.com/E1rQwsq165
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) March 7, 2023
The neurons may have fired a bit too much in injury time, as Chhetri spurned a presentable chance in the box by opting for the near post, when curling the box into the far post seemed the better option. 2-0 may have offered BFC a greater cushion, but with Sunil Chhetri to count on in the second game as well, who would worry? He's got three in his last four - the Kanteerava is simply waiting for the fourth.
The most clutch player in the league, again and again and again.
2. Bengaluru's defensive spine rises to the occasion
Most teams would have crumbled after Mumbai City's onslaught in the opening 20 minutes - many have, in fact. However, Bengaluru FC's ability to withstand pressure is unmatched in the league and the visitors held firm as Greg Stewart and Jorge Pereyra Diaz floated all over the pitch. There were a few awkward moments - from Jhingan getting nutmegged as Stewart found Diaz in the box - but the three defenders remained committed to their task.
Aleksandar Jovanovic was imperious right from the off, blocking off multiple shots that never found the target. That Mumbai City attempted 23 shots and only 3 found the target was largely in part to the Australian, who never let Pereyra Diaz have a sniff after his initial outburst. Sandesh Jhingan turned in a vintage Sandesh Jhingan performance - all heart and clearances, including diving head first to block a shot.
Yet, the plaudits in midfield go to Suresh Singh - who was all over the pitch, all over the opposition and all over the ball. Mumbai's midfield never had the time to breathe, any attempts by their forwards to drop deep into space and receive the ball ended with him pouncing on them and stealing the ball. BFC's defensive acumen hasn't been in question in their winning run (now up to 10 games), but this performance was a higher mark - Mumbai cannot expect a stroll in the park in the second leg.
3. Greg Stewart and his teammates wilt in Mumbai's weather
Perhaps it was the fact that Mumbai City had gone 16 days without football, or perhaps the stifling weather (29 degrees and 56% humidity), but the manner in which Des Buckingham's side faded was extremely concerning. While their manager may have been unconcerned after the game, Mumbai went from looking like the record-breaking League Shield champions they are in the opening 20 minutes... to really not much of anything at all.
If anything, Mumbai were lucky to walk away with a 1-0 scoreline. However, the blunt nature of their attack in the second half, when they were chasing a goal but simply found no solutions, ought to raise a bit of panic. Stewart was fairly anonymous, while Diaz' endeavour had no cutting edge. Bipin Singh and Lallianzuala Chhangte endure probably their worst games of the season, and the substitutes could not match the quality of the first XI.
The positive for Mumbai is they know exactly what to face at the Kanteerava - but having lost there already this season, they face a mental battle unlike anything so far this season. Will they have the will of champions, or wilt again?
- Aleksandar Jovanovic, DF, Bengaluru FC: Right from the opening minute, when Jovanovic made a crucial block on Bipin Singh's goal-bound shot, Mumbai's forwards found no quarter as the Australian provided a masterclass in tight-marking.
- Suresh Singh, MF, Bengaluru FC: While Jovanovic was BFC's rock in defence Suresh was the terrier keeping Greg Stewart, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Apuia quiet. His energy was unparalleled, and he kept snapping into tackles while disrupting any semblance of fluidity Mumbai's midfield had.
- Phurba Lachenpa, FW, Mumbai City FC: The fact that Mumbai City are still in this tie is solely down to their keeper, who made two crucial saves from Chhetri late on - a 3-0 deficit would be a tall ask for anyone, even the league champions.
After the match: What the players/managers said
Simon Grayson, head coach, Bengaluru FC:
"The message to the players before we left the dressing room was to make sure we are in the tie in the second game. We had to be resilient, because Mumbai started the game really well, which we expected them to do, they might dominate the possession but we defended really really well. I'm disappointed with how we played in the first half with possession of the ball but second half we were a lot better and really on the counterattack in the last 10-15 mins, we could have got a second and maybe a third. A 1-0 lead is great for us, but we haven't achieved anything yet, that's for sure."
"We'll play exactly how we've been playing [in the second leg]. We are tough to play against but we look a threat when we pass the ball well enough, because we will create chances. And when you can bring someone like Sunil off the bench it makes a massive diffetence, I contemplated starting him tonight because of his experience and everything that goes with that, but thought Siva[sakthi] might give us something [different]. But Sunil keeps posing me problems doesn't he?"
Des Buckingham, head coach, Mumbai City FC:
"It's disappointing, we need to take our chances. Especially first half I thought we were excellent. We didn't take the chances we were presented with and they scored from a set piece, so... [laughs]. The good thing is we have 90 minutes, we are only halfway through"
"We scored 54 goals in the league this year. In terms of looking for goals, we know we have goals in us. So they will come. If we can add that final bit... There's no panic stations here. We know what we are capable of, we've shown that over the league season and I'm very confident we'll be able to showcase that in Bengaluru"