For ninety-four minutes, it had all been going to plan.
Having taken the lead just past the half-hour mark, ATK Mohun Bagan had sat back and absorbed pressure and sat back some more. They had done it so many times already (6, in 20 league games), and it was going to be one more, 1-0 to the ATK Mohun Bagan, thank you for coming, now bye bye.
The goal they scored had been sublime. Every aspect of it - Pritam Kotal's accurate ping from (almost) one box to another. Roy Krishna's lovely first touch and smart pass inside the box. David Williams' fake that sent Nim Dorjee for a coffee, and finish that was inch-perfect.
They had been much the better team before the goal went in, in the 34th minute, but then they... stopped. That, after all, was the essence of the '1-0 to the ATK Mohun Bagan'. Attack for a bit, score, shut up shop.
On paper, the lineup that he put out was there to blow NorthEast away. Krishna, Williams, Marcelinho, Javi Hernandez, Manvir Singh -- five proper attacking talents squeezed into a 4-4-2 formation. With Deshorn Brown, NorthEast's most potent forward, pulling up unfit on the morning of the match, it had looked like all the stars had aligned for Habas. They were right there, ripe for the picking. And yet, after taking one fruit off the tree, Habas steadfastly refused to go in search for more.
NorthEast grew in confidence, moving further and further into the ATKMB box. Without Brown, their open play lacked cohesion and menace, but Federico Gallego was dangerous as ever from the multitude of freekicks Bagan conceded. The first real warning shot that the Habas masterplan might require changing came with the last touch of the first half - Ashutosh Mehta comfortably winning a header at a set-piece, and pinging it out of bounds off the crossbar.
Past the hour mark, the situation hadn't changed much. NorthEast attacking, Bagan defending. Habas didn't feel the need for change. Khalid Jamil, quite naturally, did.
He removed Benjamin Lambot -- a leader at the back, and one who had been influential in keeping the deadly Krishna quiet for the most part -- off and brought on centre-forward Idrissa Sylla. To balance it, he took off Dorjee (still disoriented from the Williams sleight-of-foot) and brought on Indian centre-back Mashoor Shereef. This change also saw Mehta drop back to right fullback. It's not often you see a coach make two changes to his back four with half an hour plus to play in the first leg of a semifinal, but Jamil made it because he believed in his players, and also, arguably, because he believed in Habas. Specifically, in Habas' oft displayed conviction that a 1-0 lead was to be protected, not lost in the gung-ho pursuit of a bigger margin. And he was proven right.
NorthEast did all the running from then. With Sylla up top, the ball stuck more. Machado, Gallego and Britto kept winning foul after foul as they started squeezing Bagan deeper and deeper into their own defensive third. Apart from the rare foray forward from Krishna, Bagan deemed it unnecessary to test the new-look NorthEast defence.
In the ninety fourth minute, they paid for it.
Sylla held up a long ball superbly, before playing it out wide to Machado and racing into the box, where he peeled off the back of Kotal into acres of space and placed a superb header across goal into the far corner. It was a masterclass in big-man centre-forward play.
As the referee blew his whistle less than a couple of minutes later, the Bagan players collapsed on the pitch. The NorthEast ones ran around hugging everything in sight. The score had been 1-1, but for one team it felt like a loss, for the other a win.
In three days' time, they will battle again to see who makes it to the final. Come Tuesday, that clash of feelings -- of loss and victory, of missing and seizing opportunities -- might just make all the difference.
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