Manvir Singh revels in Salt Lake cauldron to take Mohun Bagan to ISL final

The Salt Lake can crush the best of them to pieces. All Odisha's big names, their experienced seniors, were a success as Mohun Bagan prevailed 2-0 (3-2 agg), thanks to goals from Jason Cummings and Sahal Abdul Samad to reach the final of Indian Super League 2023-24. , a league and cup double just another Salt Lake 90 away.

It only took a few seconds for the Calcutta cauldron to speak out. About 62,000 people packed the stands in maroon and green, and Ahmed Jahouh, who has barely misplaced a pass all season (and has a record for completed passes for 90), sent one straight to Anirudh Thapa who closed it. Thapa should have scored, but the missed chance didn't matter.

Antonio Habas has never lost a knockout second leg match in the ISL. When Bagan needs to win at the Salt Lake Stadium, they win.

It doesn't help that the din of Salt Lake is added to a city facing a heat wave with temperatures reaching 43 degrees. Then you mix in the way Habas got his players to start the game – a barely believable high pressure with a tempo and intensity that would remain unmatched – and even the best would fade, as Amrinder Singh did.

The normally assured and experienced Odisha keeper in goal produced a screamer that no one expected when Dimi Petratos lined one up in the 22nd minute. The Bagan striker's strike was pure, but it could have easily been diverted out of danger. Instead, Amrinder put it straight back into the box and Cummings was on hand to take it home.

A gift that its 62,000 recipients received with joy. Even after 22 minutes, with the scores generally tied, it felt like Bagan had done the hardest part, that there would only be one winner. It's in scenarios like this that complacency can set in, and with Roy Krishna ever-present to convert even the smallest sniff on goal, Bagan could have blown it.

As they did 10 minutes into the second half. Manvir Singh made a run that involved quite a bit of fortune, beating a few defenders before taking on a third in the box. His speed and strength earned him a yard, and all he had to do was square it with the unmarked Cummings in front of goal. The Indian striker, however, opted for a low pass in front of goal, and it was saved with relative ease.

Maybe the Salt Lake was swallowing its own?

There is, however, a reason why Manvir Singh is a favorite of every manager who has managed him over the past few seasons. He rarely dwells on his mistakes and is always there, doing what he needs to do, where he should be.

In the 70th minute, Manvir was there for Bagan, sliding in to prevent what would have been an Isak Ralte strike at the far post, following a low cross from Krishna. A striker who is also defensively aware is what allows Habas to play a three in defense and employ Manvir as a right back – he is that fundamental. Which is why the 55th minute mistake that would have sealed the tie was forgivable.

And then, from the third minute of injury time, Manvir was at his best, this Schrödinger's footballing cat now displaying his best half an hour after his worst. He collected the ball on the left wing, beat Jerry Mawihmingthanga for pace, then repeated the trick against Amey Ranawade, Odisha's men left in a pile of dust. Amid tiring legs, when the heat and din had affected almost every other player on the field, Manvir pulled off a move that exemplified what made him so beloved and so frustrating in equal measure.

Manvir was in no position to shoot but he had learned his lesson, a low cross to Sahal in the box, begging to be put into the back of the net. Sahal was perhaps the most deserving player to take Bagan to the final, having been instrumental in the team's early matches, winning matches on his own.

Not tonight though – “I think that's his goal”, is how Sahal credited Manvir after the match, as the ball ricocheted lucky off Sahal's face and bounced into the net, sealing the victory of Bagan. A disjointed goal that is perhaps not as representative of the football Bagan played under Habas 2.0, but the Spaniard would not disapprove of that.

And in a league victory, it was another late goal scored by Indian players that proved crucial. Bagan have made big moves for the best Indian players available heading into the season, and it is perhaps only fitting that they are the favorites for the final, which will once again be held in Salt Lake.

The Salt Lake can tear the best of them to pieces, except when they are clad in brown and green armor. For Bagan, another trophy awaits.

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