Roy Krishna rolls back time to haunt Habas and Mohun Bagan as Odisha win ISL semifinal first-leg

Roy Krishna was the difference as he rolled back the years to haunt an old loved one. Adimazes/ISL

In the cauldron of the 40-degree weather in Bhubaneswar, everyone wilted. Old heads, young feet all fell afoul of the chaos at the Kalinga, and none could thrive. Amidst it all though, stood one man, one 36-year-old veteran, who rolled back the years to haunt an old loved one.

Roy Krishna, all 5 feet 7 inches of him, was comfortably the best player on the pitch that swallowed the rest. At the end of the first 90 of this 180-minute contest, Odisha won 2-1, their fortress unblemished in the 13 games that took place in the 2023-24 ISL season.

It began in the worst way for Sergio Lobera's men, though, their defences all agape as Mourtada Fall and Amrinder Singh went walkabout from Mohun Bagan's first corner in the third minute, Manvir Singh gifted with a free header from a couple of yards out and he could not miss. The chaos of the game was underlined by an Antonio Habas coached team having no idea how to defend a corner in the 11th minute, Vishal Kaith aimlessly flapping as an unmarked Carlos Delgado tapped the ball in from two yards out.

There was a penalty earned by Krishna, overturned for offside as the players, the fans, the referees could barely breathe from the action happening every second. Defensive shapes were a mere memory, and there was plenty of needle on the pitch as players snapped into tackles. The game descended into end-to-end action, the midfield an inconvenience as Odisha pumped in 'too much long ball long ball', as Habas described it.

Habas 2.0 is an evolution that avoids said long balls unless necessary, but it was ironic to see Habas complain, given Habas 1.0 was built on the bedrock of a long ball from Amrinder Singh to Roy Krishna and then ATK winning 1-0.

And in the 39th minute, there it was - Habas 1.0 in all its glory, except this was Lobera 2.0

Amrinder Singh spied Subhasish Bose out of position, and hoofed a long ball forward in that area of the pitch. Waiting was Krishna, and in close proximity to the Odisha forward was Hector Yuste, half a foot taller. There ought to have been only one winner, but Hector was a bit slow to the ball and Krishna outfoxed him with a cushioned header towards goal.

The centre-back still was favourite to get to the ball, but Krishna was tearing into him and a sly nudge as Hector attempted to clear the ball was enough. It trickled into the Fijian striker's path, but there was plenty still to do. Vishal Kaith was bearing down on him, Hector was sliding in to tackle him in desperation, Krishna could have easily blazed this over or shot wide or even witnessed it blocked.

This, however, was a Krishna forged in years of feeding of scraps, fine-tuned in the ISL by all those years under Habas. Age wouldn't let him forget, the muscle memory of the finish present as he stroked the ball between Kaith's legs and into the net.

His 13th goal of the season, the most by any Odisha FC player in a single season - a mean feat considering Diego Mauricio is right there. It's also vindication for the man who appeared to have been let go by both Bagan and Bengaluru FC, pointing to his age, but anyone who witnessed him absolutely rinsing Hector would realise there was plenty of life in those old legs.

Krishna didn't stop there, he remained Odisha's ever-willing outlet, later almost sealing the tie in Odisha's favour after chasing a hopeful ball down the right and whipping it across goal only for it to barely evade Isak Ralte running in.

On a night when plenty of seasoned footballers lost their heads - as witnessed by Delgado and Armando Sadiku earning red cards, Krishna kept his to give Odisha their first-ever win over Bagan in the ISL (they did defeat them 5-2 in the AFC Cup earlier this season, of course).

"Sometimes we need to suffer" said Lobera after the match, and it is best exemplified by his leading marksman, who defies age, defenders who continue to kick out at him (Hector even clattered into Krishna from behind later on) and grows from strength to strength, always ready to find the net or turn provider.

It's a mental strength that serves Odisha well in crunch games, and they've made a habit of coming from a goal down to win, as they did in dramatic fashion against Kerala Blasters a few days ago. They head to the Salt Lake, once Krishna's favoured stomping ground, but now a site for other heroes. Home comforts will be absent, and there will be plenty of suffering on offer against a partisan crowd.

Odisha still possess the capacity to defeat themselves though, and a semifinal second leg facing up to a Bagan side needing to win is as hard as they come. Yet, they can rely upon the man with two gods in his name, Roy Christopher Krishna who tends to provide divine inspiration when his club need him the most, as he did tonight.