After the full-time whistle, amid the celebrations, veterans Sunil Chhetri and Roy Krishna were sat next to each other by the touchline. The cameras were busy capturing the moment. Bengaluru FC had just beaten a star-studded Mumbai City FC in a back-and-forth slug-fest in the Durand Cup final at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on Sunday. Sivasakthi Narayanan walked over to the star-strike duo, and Chhetri immediately made way for the youngster to take his place between them. Chhetri, then, pointed with his thumb towards Sivasakthi, letting the shutterbugs know who the ‘man of the moment’ really was.
The scene was symbolic of Sivasakthi’s tournament. Until the semifinals, Bengaluru coach Simon Grayson had preferred Chhetri and Krishna to lead the line. Sivasakthi forced his way between the two for the final with his goals and energy. Coming on as a substitute, he struck four goals, including a crucial strike against Odisha FC in the quarterfinal. He had to now show he belonged there alongside his celebrated strike partners and he did on Sunday.
In the final, Bengaluru changed the formation to 4-3-1-2 with Chhetri playing off Sivasakthi and Krishna up top. At just 5’4”, Sivasakthi was up against the experienced, towering duo of Mourtada Fall and Rostyn Griffiths. The rookie striker’s task was to use his pace and run onto the long punts forward to catch out Mumbai’s high line.
After the match, Grayson said: “He deserved to play today [Sunday] because he is so confident and he offers us something different. He is quick and runs off the top. And we have two technical players in Roy and Sunil, who allow him to do that.”
Sivasakthi executed his role to near perfection from start to finish. In the early minutes, Sivasakthi was unsuccessful in chasing down a long ball against Griffiths. Sivasakthi, in his eagerness to get to the ball, appeared to lay one on Griffiths, prompting the Aussie to flay his arm angrily at him.
The chances of seeing the ball against Mumbai City are hard to come by and when another long ball was played over the top, this time in a battle with the 6’3” mountain figure of Fall, Sivasakthi made it count. While it looked like Fall had won the race, Sivasakthi smartly used the centre-back’s own momentum against him by using his arm to push him from his path before having the presence of mind to coolly lob the ball over the onrushing Phurba Lachenpa and into the empty net.
In a match where Mumbai dominated possession with 59 per cent, Sivasakthi had little to do on the ball, but he made those touches count and was a persistent threat with his running on and off the ball. Even when Krishna chose to go for a shot from distance instead of picking out his run, he wasn’t afraid to let his senior partner know that he was in space for a better opening. Mumbai’s Fall, in particular, who only joined up with the squad earlier this month, had a tough time keeping pace with him.
He was tirelessly working off the ball too, helping his full-backs by tracking back Mumbai’s high-flying wingers. Later in the dying minutes, Sivasakthi set up Chhetri on the break with a pick out but was denied a goal by Lachenpa’s save. That was Sivasakthi’s last action in the game, and he had to be stretchered off the field with cramps.
His skipper made up for the miss by picking him out for special praise.
“What a superstar he is!” said Chhetri of the 21-year-old. “When you have players like Sivasakthi in your team, you are always going to win.”
Sivasakthi has been knocking on the selectors' doors for the past 12 months or so. He was the top-scorer with 15 goals for BFC B in the Bengaluru Super Division League last season. He followed it up by scoring on his first team debut in the AFC Cup last season and scored thrice in the Durand Cup last season in Bengaluru’s second-string team. He made his Indian Super League debut accumulating seven appearances over 60 minutes.
Sivasakthi’s name has been spoken about with excitement for some time now. While it’s unfair to place the responsibility of ending the search for a Chhetri replacement on the young shoulders of Sivasakthi, he appears to have the confidence and the game to take on the mantle. He will also have the fortune of learning the trade from the man himself. But for the moment, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the exuberance of youth in Sivasakthi, and the timeless craftsman in Chhetri do their thing in tandem.