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AFC cup | Sunil Chhetri leads Bengaluru FC and Indian football into history books

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SportsCafe Desk

10/19/2016

Bengaluru FC became the first Indian team to enter the final of the AFC cup today with a stunning 3-1 win over defending champions Johor at Bengaluru. Although Johor took an early lead, skipper Sunil Chhetri scored a brace on either side of the half-time to steer Bengaluru to history.

Dempo had failed against Lebanese club Al-Safa in 2008, and East Bengal had stumbled against the then defending champions Al-Kuwait in 2013 at the semi-final stage in the past. However, a crucial 1-1 draw away in the first leg of the semifinal of the AFC Cup meant that a goal-less draw in the second leg would have seen Bengaluru through to the final – a first for an Indian team.

It was a nervy start from both the teams as they looked not too confident at the back in the opening exchanges, and the defenders struggled to make simple clearances.

Bengaluru had the first chance of the match in the 9th minute when Rino Anto delivered a wonderful cross into the box which reached Sunil Chhetri at the far post. However, the Indian striker was closed down before he could pull the trigger.

But, it was Johor who took the lead in the 12th minute. Just when Bengaluru were looking dangerous in the final third, they were hit on the counter by the defending champions. A beautiful exchange of passes between Safee Sali and Safiq Rahim led to an opening for the former, and goalie Amrinder could only partially save Safee's shot, and the Johor captain bundled it in while following up. 0-1.

But, the home side responded well to the early goal. The first chance arrived from Lyngdoh's corner which was tamely headed towards the goal by Johnson but Izham in the Johor goal punched it clear. The ball again reached Lyngdoh on the right wing, whose cross caused mayhem in the Johor box before eventually reaching Vineeth whose curling effort was once again kept out by the goalkeeper.

Bengaluru once again wasted a host of chances to equalize from a corner in the 28th minute. Johnson's initial header went to the far post where Chhetri’s shot was kept out by the keeper. The ball once again reached Chhetri a few seconds later, this time with an empty net in front of him. However, the Indian skipper blasted his shot over the bar. It was a tight angle but one would have expected someone of his quality to do better in that situation.

The skipper, however, more than made up for it 13 minutes later. After 12 minutes of drab midfield dilly-dallying by both sides, Chhetri won a corner for the home side with an effort from outside the box that took a deflection. Lyngdoh's delivery into the box found Chhetri in space inside the box, and the skipper provided a thumping header into the far corner before running towards the crowd while thumping his chest.1-1.

Right at the stroke of half-time, Bengaluru won a free-kick on the right wing but a poor finish meant the teams went into the half-time break tied at 1-1 in the match and 2-2 on aggregate.

The second half saw Bengaluru immediately out of the blocks with another good chance for Chhetri, but it was another poor finish from him - he was left unmarked, but the striker ended up sending the ball into the stands.

The 50s were a period of unusual calm as Bengaluru were being patient with the possession of the ball while Johor were happy sitting back to retain their defensive shape. Lyngdoh came in for a lot of assault from the opponents stifling Bengaluru’s play a lot in the midfield

The home side started shifting their attack down the left side of the pitch as Lyngdoh and Chhetri combined well down the flank. In the 65th minute, Lyngdoh managed to get behind the Johor defence down the left wing once again, but was thwarted by the onrushing goalkeeper.

But as they say - Cometh the hour, cometh the man! In the 68th minute, Chhetri received the ball a long way away from the goal before drifting to the center and then unleashing a thunderous effort on goal which nestled into the top right corner of the goal. 2-1!

The frustration from Johor was evident as they engaged in some rash play - Lyngdoh who was on another marauding run down the left wing was taken out by Fazly. He blatantly pushed the midfielder down on to the pitch. The referee, however, was facing the other way and refused to award a penalty. The fight that broke out elsewhere between Vineeth and Zafaun ended with a yellow card for the Indian forward.

But, that rashness proved costly for the visitors soon as it ended in a decisive free-kick. Lyngdoh delivered a brilliant cross into the box, and Juanan was at hand to head it into the net to take Bengaluru just minutes away from a place in the final. 3-1.

The last ten minutes were marred by more rash play from the desperate visitors as Lyngdoh who was battered and bruised through the match finally was stretchered off in the 84th minute before goalie Amrinder as well spent a traumatic minute lying on the pitch from a challenge. However, Bengaluru safely saw out the time to become the first Indian team ever to reach the final of the AFC Cup.

History had been created at the Kanteerava tonight and Chhetri was its architect. The fledgling club calmly continues to push the boundaries of Indian football as the glitzy but hollow aura of the ISL fades momentarily - at least for tonight.

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