In the end, everything was in the hands of the two best footballers on the pitch. The score was what it was thanks to those two – Phurba Lachenpa and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
Eventually, it was decided by the man who has been India’s No. 1 for about a decade. The one who had started the game with a penalty save (minute 12, Greg Stewart; and the continuation of Lallianzuala Chhangte) finished it off with another.
After a frantic end-to-end match ended 2-1 in favor of Mumbai in the 1990s, and then the 120s, drawing the scores at 2-2 on aggregate, it all came down to an absolutely thrilling penalty shootout. . One after another they stepped up, and one after another they conceded perfect penalty after perfect penalty: side net, top of the net, plus side net. They had to be, because if you smelled these two guardians on them, they would devour you.
Which is what Mehtab Singh did, the man who had jumped high to make it 2-1. And Gurpreet Singh Sandhu ate it. Mehtab had placed his shot low and hard, but Gurpreet had hit it. Nothing would escape him once he made the first right decision. Sandesh Jhingan stepped forward, sent Phurba Lachenpa down the wrong path and that was it. 9-8 on penalties, another win for Bengaluru (technically a loss on the night, ending their winning streak at 10) and a remarkable revival 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 very close, I think three of the penalties: Greg (Stewart), (Jorge) Diaz and Rahul (Bheke), but their quality was very high. They were shooting it right into the side of the net,” Gurpreet said, after of the party
Penalty kicks are a cruel, cruel phenomenon, often leaving the people who least deserve to suffer doing just that in the end. Mehtab, the goalscorer, had put in an excellent performance all night. Most of all, though, it was the sight of Phurba, slumped on the goal line, and then sitting alone on the bench that spoke of the cruelty of it all.
He had been in impressive form all night, sweeping high behind the Mumbai defense to keep Mumbai’s counter-attacking threat quiet, brilliantly passing through the back, but most of all pulling in some amazing quality saves. He three times left Javi Hernández out of shots with which Javi was sure he had scored: two low shots to the left, another overturned and deflected to the right. As Gurpreet said: “I thought Lachenpa was really good,” before adding that it was his saves that had kept Mumbai in, “that’s why the game went on so long!”
He may have brushed off his performance with a “yeah, it was good, I made a couple of saves,” but Gurpreet had been immense as well. He had been the culprit of that early penalty in Mumbai, diving headlong at the feet of Jorge Pereyra Diaz, and for two minutes it looked as if he might have suffered a concussion; but he brushed it off. First came the saving of the penalty: diving low to the left of him, pushing him wide, then immediately coming to his feet to close and save Chhangte’s rebound attempt.
Bengaluru boss Simon Grayson would say, after the match, that the save had given the whole team an extra boost. “I gave the penalty first, na,” said Gurpreet; the unsaid part is ‘obviously I had to make up for it’.
“In my opinion, it was just to make it as difficult as possible for Greg, pick a side and go as late as possible. Same for Mehtab.”
Neither goalkeeper could do much with the goals – the Bengaluruan was assisted by excellent work from Sivasakthi down the left and finished off by Javi with an accurate header. For Mumbai’s opener, Gurpreet did well to block Rowllin Borges’ close-range shot (one on one), but was able to do little about Bipin Singh’s touch. There was little he could do either when Mehtab got away from his marker and hit an unmarked header at the near post.
The outfielders also had their moments: Stewart pulled off such a skillful move that Rohit Kumar tackled his teammate, Roshan Singh; Ahmed Jahouh throwing 60m crosses that only he (and his running back) could see with a slow flick of his right boot; Javi putting together a shot with a touch of almost divine inspiration; Roy Krishna intimidating absolutely everything in his path, an instance in which he tossed Stewart around like a rag doll as a particular highlight.
It was a game that had quality at all times; and the excitement seldom abated. It wasn’t one of those dull, monotonous affairs that ends in a never-ending penalty shootout, but even then, it was the goalkeepers who stood out.
It was only fitting that they were the ones who took the spotlight in the end.