It was worth it in the end.
120 minutes of attritional football, energy sapped out of every limb, sinews straining, the mental fortitude to ensure there wasn't a mistake, and Pritam Kotal struck the decisive penalty to send ATK Mohun Bagan through to the Indian Super League final. The Salt Lake stadium specializes in roars, and the one that erupted after their captain ran over to them was deafening.
For much of the game though, silence reigned as Hyderabad and ATK Mohun Bagan slugged it out in a tactical battle. Juan Ferrando termed it a 'pleasure' to play against Hyderabad FC, but the 390 minutes that the two teams have played this season have resulted in just two goals. The first leg of this semifinal had its share of redeeming qualities, but it's fair to say that this second leg would have editors scrambling for footage for their highlights package.
KOLKATA ERUPTS! 😍
Local lad & @atkmohunbaganfc Captain @KotalPritam did the job by sealing a place in the #HeroISL 2022-23 Final! 🤩#ATKMBHFC #HeroISLPlayoffs #LetsFootball #ATKMohunBagan #PritamKotal pic.twitter.com/OrrBHtsGr7
- Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) March 13, 2023
Not that ATK Mohun Bagan would care, and their fans would be quick to say they deserved the win, what with Manvir Singh hitting the crossbar, Lalrinliana Hnamte going close with a delicious curler from range and Nikhil Poojari denying Liston Colaco a tap in. That's the game summed up in a sentence, which tells you all you need to know about it.
Javi Siverio had Hyderabad's first shot on target in the 86th minute, but the visitors did little apart from spoil, with Sahil Tavora name-checked by his boss in the post-match interview for his excellence at said spoiling.
Manolo Marquez' luck had to run out eventually this season, his side had taken blow-after-blow during the season, and it was a credit to them that it took penalties to finally bring their season to an end. That seemed the only way to penetrate the yellow wall in Kolkata, who plugged every gap, scrapped for every ball and blocked every shot. Ferrando gambled, taking off Kiyan Nassiri and Hugo Boumous, who had turned in excellent performances, but the casino did not care tonight. There was no ace in the hole from the outfield players.
Penalties, described as a 'cruel, cruel phenomena' last night, came as sweet relief this time around - make no mistake, this game would have remained goalless even if there were another 120 minutes at the Salt Lake. The home crowd, ever patient, roused themselves as the final whistle blew after extra time. It seeped into Pritam Kotal, who gathered his teammates in a huddle and exhorted them for one final push.
The prize was staring them in the face - a spot in the final after a stop-start season, in which they and their coach had justifiably earned brickbats. And then the lottery began.
Joao Victor and Dimi Petratos made no mistake, shooting to their left, the ball rifling into the top corner. Would there be no separating these two teams even with penalties?
No, said Vishal Kaith.
Goalkeepers have proved their mettle recently, and after Kaith's playoff journey has involved the ambulance on the pitch and a trip to the hospital, an incredible save to deny Joel Chianese (that on reflection, is a match-winning one), and now, penalty heroics.
Javi Siverio, with the fresh legs of a substitute, wasn't tired - this wasn't about to be a scuffed effort - but Kaith predicted correctly and saved it with aplomb. The roar erupted, and incredibly, got louder when Gallego guided his effort in, geeing up the crowd to raise the roof. After all, Bart Ogbeche was up next. A dead cert. The man who was left on the pitch, utterly devoid of energy, just to take a penalty.
Ogbeche's low effort was almost too perfect, flying past Kaith but spinning off the inside of the post an out. That roar, again. ATK Mohun Bagan, again.
If felt an inevitability even after Rohit Danu and Manvir Singh converted their efforts, but Brendan Hamill skewed his effort wide. Reagan Singh then ensured ATKMB had to score their final penalty. Silence, again. Nerves, again.
No, said Pritam Kotal.
The captain's armband, the burden of the expectations of Kolkata football, the roller-coaster of a season, Kotal had every reason to miss. Yet, it's moments like these that this Indian stalwart lives for. His strike left Gurmeet Singh no chance, burying Hyderabad and raising the roof off the Salt Lake stadium.
The ISL final, the plaudits, Juan Ferrando's vindication. It mattered not how they got there, what mattered was that they did get there.
It was worth it in the end.
A night that began with smog and blurred vision ended in pure clarity - ATK Mohun Bagan always seem to be at the pinnacle of Indian football, and they get there in every possible way.