The easiest way to spot a match-winner is how they turn up for the big occasion. On Sunday evening, Bengaluru FC found theirs in captain Sunil Chhetri. Time and again.
In the 65th minute, with Bengaluru leading 1-0, and having just survived a spell of pressure early in the second half, a feeble back pass from Rafa Lopez puts Pune goalkeeper Vishal Kaith under pressure, resulting in a hasty clearance and a throw-in. Even as the Pune players scramble back, Chhetri is at the touchline, urging a ball boy to hurry up.
Laying up a gentle throw in the path of his strike partner Miku, Chhetri instinctively sets off for the penalty box, looking for the return pass as he cuts in from the left. Under pressure from defender Sarthak Golui, Chhetri knows his options are limited, and gambles on an angular run across the inexperienced Golui, who ends up knocking Chhetri down from behind. Penalty, and a chance to seal the semi-final.
Chhetri steps up, and puts away a panenka, just beyond the reach of Kaith.
This is a footballer at the top of his game, with his brain clicking along at a pace ahead of most others on the pitch, as he showed in the first quarter of an hour itself.
Receiving the ball in the opposition half, surrounded by Pune's white shirts on all sides, he feigns, dodges, and dribble -- buying his wingers time to get into attacking positions -- before releasing Udanta Singh. Udanta's cross from the right barely reaches Chhetri, who puts in a leap of great faith to just about punt the ball towards goal. It beats Kaith, almost through lack of adequate pace, but goes into the net to set Bengaluru's night rolling.
When coach Albert Roca takes Boithang Haokip off to bring in Lenny Rodrigues to consolidate the midfield, Chhetri is asked to stay back and anchor the midfield. The captain does as instructed, and watches as Pune pull one back from a Jonatan Lucca free-kick.
Another goal for Pune would take them through to the ISL final on away goals.
Not on Chhetri's watch.
Showing exemplary precision for a man who has done his share of running for 88 minutes, Chhetri outruns Golui yet again, cuts inside and smashes a powerful shot with his instep high and wide of Kaith.
It's a job done, and in some style. Few know how to do it better than Sunil Chhetri.