You know what, Hyderabad really shouldn't have had a chance.
Five minutes into their game against league leaders ATK Mohun Bagan on Monday, David Williams raced onto an expert Roy Krishna flick-on, and Chinglensana Singh, last man back, had a decision to make. For once this season, he made the wrong one -- bringing Williams down by the arm just as he was about to enter the box. Red card. No arguments.
Now, it's hard enough taking on Antonio Habas' Bagan with 11 men, but imagine having to play them for 85 minutes (plus) with just 10. With the kind of form Bagan were in (five wins in the last five, five clear at the top, Krishna scoring when he wants), you just knew what was going to happen -- the Habas machine turns it up a notch and makes their opponents question their will to play.
Now, let's step back for a moment to look at the larger picture. This match shouldn't have meant so much to Hyderabad. They really shouldn't even have been in this position at this stage of the season -- a couple of wins away from a maiden playoff appearance. They had ended last season at rock bottom, a pale imitation of a football team. They had lost their big-name coach before the season even started when Barcelona, THE Barcelona, had come calling. In the first couple of weeks, they could barely field a fully fit XI, playing vast swathes of the opening stages with just a couple of foreigners and a whole lot of untested Indian kids.
So when they went down to 10 men against the league leaders, they decided to do what they have been doing for the past four months -- look the accepted rules of life in the eye and laugh heartily at them. It's what Manolo Marquez has taught them to do.
Three minutes after the red card, Aridane Santana pounced on a terribly underhit backpass from Pritam Kotal and scraped the ball past a flailing Arindam Bhattacharya. 1-0 to the team that should never have had a chance in hell.
Then, to a man, they dug in.
Nikhil Poojary, a winger all his life, was at right back stepping in for the injured Ashish Rai. Victor Joao dropped in from his deep-lying midfield position to partner Odei Onaindia in the heart of the defence. Akash Mishra was superb, as ever, on the left flank. Ahead of them, the midfield and attack ran and ran and ran. Liston Colaco twisted blood, Halicharan Narzary stretched the game, Santana dominated it.
It was working to a T, till 57 minutes into the game, 52 minutes of 10 vs. 11, Manvir Singh equalised. Laxmikant Kattimani, so good for so much of the game, and indeed the season, picked the worst possible time for a brain fade, sitting down when there was no need to and beseeching Manvir to clip it into the roof of the net from a tight angle. Which he did.
That should have been that. It should have broken Hyderabad's resistance. But remember that tetchy relationship between the phrase 'should not have' and this team?
Roland Alberg came on for Colaco in the 73rd minute. In the 74th, with his first touch of the game, he slammed a volley into the bottom corner of the Bagan net. His first goal of the season made it 2-1 in favour of the team that should never have stood a chance.
They continued to hold Bagan at bay, restricting them to shots from distance and in turn testing their opponent's defence at every chance. They were so good that over the 90 minutes, 11-men Bagan had one less shot on target than 10-man Hyderabad. Entering injury time of the second half, the story arc was set up perfectly. David taking down Goliath, history and numerical advantage and on-paper quality disparities be damned.
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Which is when Kotal stepped up, as if to say, 'Nah, not today.'
That's the thing about Habas' ATKMB, just like life. They are relentless. They don't much care for narratives. They care even less about perfect endings.
In the 93rd minute, Jayesh Rane swung in a hopeful ball, Kattimani couldn't hold on to it and Kotal pounced on the rebound to make it 2-2. That's how it ended, Fran Sandaza missing a glorious chance to pinch it at the end.
It doesn't matter, though. It shouldn't. The mere fact that Hyderabad had played 90 minutes of football (stoppage times included) a man down against the most dominant side in the land and had almost pulled off the impossible should stand alone as one of this season's great stories.
In the post-match interactions, Marquez was informed that the broadcast analysts felt the Kotal goal had been offside, to which he responded, "I don't want to complain. It's very easy to cry when the decision goes against your side. I just want to congratulate my players. I'm so proud of them." And so he ought to be.
Their disdain for convention denied ATKMB their confirmed top spot, for now, but the result means Hyderabad now have to go beat Goa on the penultimate day, and without Santana and Sana Singh (both suspended, both key cogs -- the former their best attacker, the latter their best defender). Yet again, the odds are stacked against them. They really shouldn't stand a chance..