Pyongyang, DPR Korea: Bengaluru FC kept their calm to hold on to a three-goal lead from the first leg to seal an aggregate win (3-0) after a goalless draw against 4.25 SC, at the May Day Stadium, in Pyongyang, on Wednesday. The result secures a place for the Blues in the Inter-zone final of the 2017 AFC Cup, where they are set to face Tajik side FC Istiklol in a two-legged affair.
While the game lacked goals, it was custodian Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who impressed with some brilliant work under the bar for the Blues. The Punjabi-lad pulled off a crucial second half penalty save, as Albert Roca’s side extended their clean-sheet streak to three games in the competition, the longest in four years.
Going into the second leg, Roca opted to field an unchanged XI from the first leg with skipper Sunil Chhetri, Antonio Dovale and Udanta Singh leading the front line while Spaniard Dimas Delgado marshalled midfield.
The game, played on the artificial turf of the massive May Day Stadium, was a contrast to the first leg, where the Blues had dominated proceedings for majority of the night. In Pyongyang, Bengaluru were edged out in terms of possession and chances, but made up for with a stubborn defense as Gurpreet, Juanan Gonzalez, Rahul Bheke, Harmanjot Khabra and Nishu Kumar, who was later replaced by Subhasish Bose kept the 4.25 SC attack at bay.
While the first half saw Bengaluru create a few half chances, most notably through Toni Dovale, the hosts managed to control the game. With a sizeable turnout egging for the home side to attack, the Blues did well to arrive at the break with the scores unchanged.
Bengaluru were forced to sit deep and defend in the second half as tournament top-scorer Kim Yu Song almost gave 4.25 SC the lead in the 57th minute with a header, but it was Gurpreet once again who denied the striker. As the game progressed, Hwang Yong Song’s side continued to attack and substitute An Il-Bom who came on in the 61st minute, forced the Blues custodian into another brilliant diving save in the 70th.
The hosts continued to mount persistent attacks on the Blues' back-line, passing the ball well while switching play efficiently to keep the pressure on. For Bengaluru, it was Man-of-the-Match Gurpreet who did well to command his defenders and the rest of the team, who dropped deep to help thwart the Korean side’s attack.
Into the final quarter of the game, 4.25 had the best chance to break the deadlock as Rahul Bheke brought down Bom inside the box in the 77th minute, prompting referee Wang Di to point to the spot. However, Gurpreet dived to his right denying midfielder Ri Hyong Jin's effort from 12 yards.
The pressure culminated into another chance in the dying moments of the game, as midfielder Won Song hit the crossbar with an effort from 20-yards out but it wasn't to be for the home side.
"They dominated majority of the game and deserved to win. But at the same time, we defended very well as a team and managed to hold on to our lead from the first leg. We are happy to have made it through and now look to get back to Bengaluru and prepare for the big game against FC Istiklol," Roca said, speaking at the post-match press conference.
For their part, the Blues had to overcome numerous hurdles to get through - some on field, some off of it. While their travel plans were initially delayed due to Foundation Day Celebrations in DPR Korea, part of the luggage went missing in transit when they finally made it through to Pyongyang on Monday. With 15 bags of kits and equipment arriving just a day before the game, the Blues had to train in makeshift gear on the eve of the clash.
Up next in the Inter-zone final for Bengaluru FC will be Dushanbe-based Tajikistan side FC Istiklol who overcame Philippines’ Ceres Negros FC 5-1 (agg.) in the other two-legged Inter-zone semifinal. The first leg will be played away on September 27th, while the return leg at the Kanteerava Stadium is scheduled for October 18th.