ATK are through to their third ISL final. They did so by beating Bengaluru FC 3-2 on aggregate after a second leg that was the antithesis of the cagey event that was the first. If the first leg could only ever have ended 1-0 -- such was the paucity of attacking play on the night -- the second, which ended 3-1, could have been a proper tennis score. It was scrappy, it was a bit helter-skelter, and it was enormously entertaining. And, given how this season has panned out, it was only natural that a refereeing decision played a pivotal role in the end result.
Bengaluru set the tone early on, sitting tight in their own half before uncoiling and counterattacking with a menace that had not been seen in them all season. Their opening goal -- Ashique Kuruniyan running onto a lovely outside-of-the-boot swoosh from Nili, skipping past a hopeless Sumit Rathi challenge and giving Arindam Bhattacharya the eyes - stunned a loud Salt Lake stadium into silence. Carles Cuadrat, who had spent most of his home leg making sure at least nine of his men were behind the ball at all times, had taken Antonio Habas by surprise.
It took nearly 30 minutes for ATK to find their rhythm, and the spark came with their three best players this season combining for the equaliser. David Williams reversed a lovely ball out to Prabir Das, whose accurate whipped ball was angled into the roof of the net by Roy Krishna.
With the score at 1-1, Bengaluru withdrew deeper and deeper into themselves, the lack of confidence in attack that had plagued their season creeping to the surface, comfortable in the knowledge that they could hold their own inside their own half,
With an hour gone, that defensive wall still holding strong, makeshift right-back Suresh Singh Wangjam and makeshift left-back Nili controlling the flanks as the big men in the centre gave nothing away, up stepped the referee.
David Williams, skipping into the box, lunged over Suresh's outstretched leg, the ATK man initiating the contact. The referee, not more than five yards away from the twain, blew his whistle. Contentious, to say the least. Williams made no mistake with the penalty and that seemed to break the back of the Bengaluru resistance.
They were still leading, thanks to that early away goal, but they knew they needed one more to seal the deal. With both teams looking for the goal, the match was blown wide open -- the last half hour of the game turning into an impromptu homage to the cavalier gloriousness of Goa v Chennai, the other semi-final.
As the match wore on, it became more frantic, the passing more urgent, the attacking more frequent. Chances were created, and missed, at either end. Dimas Delgado hit the post from a superb set-piece routine. Williams arrowed a shot wide. Kevaughn Frater, sent through one-on-one by a delightful ball from Suresh, could only find Arindam with his attempt.
And then came Williams. Again. Prabir Das sent in another lovely cross that Williams powered home from near the edge of the box. Considering the lack of pace on the ball, considering the fact that he did not have a running start (in fact, he had to lean back a bit to connect), it was a supreme header.
If the penalty incident had brought out the ugly side of Williams' game, this was him showing the world just how good a footballer he was.
Without Nishu Kumar to contend with down his flank, Prabir Das ran the show down the ATK right. But before he could sink to his knees and scream "for Kolkata!" at the final whistle, he and his team had to defend for their lives. Arindam saved from a poorly directed John Johnson header, Prabir stuck a foot in front of Chhetri inside the six-yard box. Backs-to-the-wall, effective, solid.
For Bengaluru, there will be an inquest. They have been poor all season, their AFC Cup campaign a shambles, their attack lacking any sort of pattern, their run to the semi-final built on the back of a defence that just could not hold out when it mattered most. This has been the toughest period in their short history, and it will need some powering through.
For ATK, meanwhile, it is, once again, a chance for glory. Habas had guided them to the crown in the very first season of this league, and now he has a chance to win them their third. Waiting for them in the final will be fellow two-time winners, the miracle men of Chennaiyin. A clash of royalty that, if the season gone by has been any clue, could well be one for the ages. Let's hope the referee doesn't take centre-stage.