No reward for toppers yet again as final curse haunts BFC
Jeje Lalpekhlua had a point when he said "the pressure is on Bengaluru" ahead of the ISL final. Sure enough, in front of a boisterous home support, Bengaluru FC succumbed to schoolboy errors and nerves to hand Chennaiyin FC their second ISL title.
It meant that for the third time in four seasons, the home team lost in the final, a jinx that has haunted FC Goa (2015), Kerala Blasters (2016), and now BFC.
When Mailson Alves headed the ball in at the stroke of half-time, almost symbolically, lightning struck the Kanteerva sky. A scythe was struck through the whole of Bengaluru. It was just as ironic since BFC's fans had prepared a huge banner with the image of the grim reaper to put off the away team. In the end, though, it was the hosts who got the creeps.
With that second goal, Chennaiyin had turned the game on its head, and BFC went into the break deflated. Two crosses from Gregory Nelson, two headers from Mailson, and two easily avoidable goals that BFC ultimately could never recover from.
"I don't think (we were under pressure) as we were controlling the pressure," Roca said after the game. "Then Mailson scored those two goals and it changed everything. We started so well, and then two minutes changed everything. We have some players who are less experienced and they felt the pressure."
As the crowd turned quieter with each passing minute in the second half, BFC's attacking play became just as muted. Chennaiyin, like they had done the entire season, kept things tight and sapped the energy out of everyone in blue. Slowly, the chants in the stands switched from "we can do this" to "sold off referee".
By the time Raphael Augusto curled in Chennaiyin's third, BFC knew they were headed towards defeat. For the fourth consecutive season, the team that had topped the table in the group stages would fail to get their hands on the main prize. Miku eventually got one back for the hosts, but it was too little too late. Walking back to the dressing room alone after he received his runners-up medal, he cut a disappointed figure. "They defend games with us a lot because they are a worse team than us," he said of Chennaiyin.
"When you finish the league in first position and you are eight points clear of the second team and after you lose the final, the season becomes a worse season. We know they don't have football, they have strong defence and only set-pieces. We know we are a better team than them. We played three games better than them, but in football not always does the better team wins."
For the second time this season, set-pieces were BFC's undoing against Chennaiyin. In December, it was Dhanpal Ganesh who silenced the Kanteerva Stadium, striking late in the game to seal a 2-1 victory. BFC might have been hoping that history would not repeat itself, but by failing to deal with two corners, they were reliving their worst nightmare.
To Chennaiyin's credit, they played to their strengths and stuck to head coach John Gregory's plan throughout the 90 minutes. A wealth of experience in their squad helped too, with as many as six players having already won the ISL before.
Chennaiyin's fans also played a part, as they counteracted BFC's grim reaper by bringing a banner of their own which read, "Bring back the Cup".
Bring back the cup they did.