In the end, it was him. It's always him, isn't it? For nigh on a decade, Sunil Chhetri has carried Indian football. He has scored so many goals he sits sandwiched between the two greatest footballers today on the list of top active international goalscorers. On Monday, numbers 73 and 74 (two more than Lionel Messi and 29 fewer than Cristiano Ronaldo) saw India beat Bangladesh to climb to third in their AFC World-Cup-cum-Asian-Cup qualifying group. Finish there and India move automatically to the next stage of qualifying for the Asian Cup.
All goals matter, but Chhetri's seem to carry just that touch more import. Anything other than a win on Monday, and India would have been lambasted.
Bangladesh, underwhelming by the standards of their own performance in the reverse fixture, sat deep and compact, offering nothing more than a perfunctory threat moving forward. India coach Igor Stimac, having promised attacking intent, started with a free-form XI packed with attacking talent. It was a loosely defined 3-4-1-2, a bored Gurpreet Singh in goal, Chinglensana Singh, Sandesh Jhingan, and Subashish Bose manning the defence -- Bose given the most freedom of the lot. Udanta Singh was a sort of floating right wing-back while on the other side Bipin Singh was more of a full-fledged winger (hence the freedom for Bose on that side). In the middle of the park, Glan Martins and Suresh Singh offered bite, energy and protection in equal measure. Up front Chhetri and Manvir Singh roamed. Just behind them, Brandon Fernandes did Brandon Fernandes things.
And boy, did he do them well.
For nearly 80 minutes, Fernandes tried to make his team play football, and failed. He pinged the ball left, swept it out wide to the right, saw gaps no one else on the pitch saw, and played balls no one else could have thought up. In the six WCQ matches up till now, India had scored three goals, and all of them had been assisted by Fernandes. This match saw all those previous flashes of quality compressed into a singularly brilliant one-man show. Every one in India colours seemed to pass it to him every time they got it, and he always seemed to know what to do. At the receiving end of his passes, though, it was a whole different matter.
He saw an eye-of-the-needle through ball squandered by Manvir. He saw a magnificent corner headed goalward superbly by Sana and cleared in even more spectacular fashion by Riyadul Hasan. He saw another corner headed well wide by Bose. He saw an inch-perfect free-kick headed off target from point-blank range by Chhetri.
In that moment, he must surely have thought this was a Quixotic quest -- doomed to fail, but with no chance of the hero in question giving up. He had got smashed into in the second minute by Rakib Hossain and in-between picking their defence apart, was treated like a pinata by a majority of the men in red for all the time he was on the pitch. And yet he kept on keeping on.
Then, it clicked. Just like that.
Ashique Kuruniyan, having replaced Bipin on the left, was fed into the channel by another smooth Fernandes ball. Kuruniyan, all gangly legs and awkward stride, muscled past a couple of defenders before floating a lovely cross across the face of goal. Where, enter stage inside right, was Chhetri. A well-timed leap, and a soft touch of the head -- angles calculated to perfection -- and the ball gently trudged into the net. The sprint to go and celebrate with his coach betrayed the immense relief that seemed to have seeped through everyone in the team the moment the ball nestled in the far corner of the Bangladeshi net.
In the last 10 minutes, Bangladesh tried to attack, but 80 minutes of constant ball control had seen the Indians get too comfortable with it. Gurpreet could have taken a nap for all it mattered [he even tried to liven things up by attempting to dribble past a forward who had been closing down rapidly, and almost failing). It was only natural, then, that in the dying minutes of the match, India would get the better chances.
In the 92nd minute, Suresh rampaged forward from his makeshift right back slot (having moved there late on after a raft of substitutions) before squaring it to his captain. And we entered Chhetri time again -- that zone where time seems to take a slight pause only for him.
With a soft touch, he killed the ball dead at his feet and angled his body toward goal in one smooth motion. With the next he gently lifted it past a couple of defenders and into the goal. Easy as that. It happened in a split-second, but the sequence seemed to happen in gloriously cinematic slow-motion. The casual celebration, standing where he took the shot, smiling lightly, soaking it in, made it even better.
This was India's first win in the WCQ campaign, just their second in two years under Stimac. For the vast majority of the match, it hadn't been coming. For all of Fernandes' passing and Sana's calm and Suresh's bustle, it had been an underwhelming team performance. But two goals in 13 minutes flipped the narrative on its head, buying Stimac more time, lifting sinking Indian morale.
There shouldn't have been any doubt who would do the lifting. In the end, he's always there. Chhetri -- India's saviour once again.