BENGALURU: A ten-man Bengaluru FC saw their dreams of a consecutive AFC Cup final come crashing down when Albert Roca’s, who needed to win by a two-goal margin, ended things at 2-2 with FC Istiklol (3-2 on aggregate) on a night at the Kanteerava marred by dubious refereeing decisions.

The Blues went behind in the 4th minute to a decision of a penalty that never was after replays showed no contact between ’keeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Fathuloev Fathullo. The hosts then pulled one back when Rahul Bheke headed home his first goal (24’) for the Blues. In what was a massive blow to the comeback effort, defender Harmanjot Khabra picked up a second booking just before half-time, reducing Bengaluru to ten-men.

Istiklol’s second, scored by Dmitrii Barkov (56’) had a hint of off-side but the Blues’ pleas fell to deaf ears. Bengaluru then won a penalty of their own that skipper Sunil Chhetri converted in the 65th minute. But it wasn’t to be a magical night that the Fortress hoped it would be as Istiklol weathered a brave Bengaluru charge.

Albert Roca made two changes to the starting XI with striker Daniel Lalhlimpuia and defender Harmanjot Khabra replacing Antonio Dovale and Collin Abranches from the team that took the pitch in Dushanbe.

Needing a win by a two-goal margin to progress, Bengaluru got off to a horror start when Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was penalized by referee Khamis Al-Marri for an apparent foul on Fathullo, to point to the spot in the 2nd minute. However, replays clearly showed a blatant dive from the Istiklol skipper with all protests waived off. Sandhu, who had kept a penalty out in North Korea, was beaten this time by Davronov Nuriddin as the Tajik side went up 1-0.

Backed by a vociferous home support, the Blues went on an onslaught with the skipper pulling the strings from the left. First, he cut in from the left and hammered a low shot which was kept out by Istiklol ’keeper Nicola Stosic in the 6th minute before he sent a perfect through ball to Dimas down the middle which the Spaniard couldn’t capitalize on. Moments later, the skipper dribbled past three defenders from the left before once again being denied by the rival custodian.

Midway through the half, Daniel capitalized on a miss-pass by David Mawutor and fired a grounder which was cleared for a corner by the Stosic.

But given the pressure the Blues were piling on, an equaliser was always in the coming. A corner played short saw Udanta send a cross in the box that Bheke nodded home to make it 1-1 in the 24th minute. Bengaluru almost took the lead in the game at the half hour mark, only for Chhetri to be denied by the crossbar after a good move saw him gain possession in the rival box.

The Blues kept the pressure on, creating chance after chance as Istiklol were restricted to a few counter attacks. Meanwhile, Bengaluru’s task was made even harder in the 42nd minute when defender Harmanjot Khabra was given his marching orders by the referee for a second bookable offense after he brought down Dzhalilov Manuchher. The first half ended with the score locked at 1-1.

Needing two more goals to make it through, Bengaluru began pushing up right from the word go despite being a man down. Eight minutes in, Roca made the first change, throwing in attacker Antonio Dovale in place of midfielder Lenny Rodrigues.
The Blues were dealt another blow in the 56th minute when Dmitrii Barkov tapped in from close range breaking the offside trap to put Istiklol 2-1 up on the night.

Bengaluru went close to levelling the scores once again, when Udanta ran clear down the right before cutting in and floating a left-footed cross in the box to Daniel. The striker’s flick on landed for Chhetri at the far post but his effort was saved by the keeper.

Minutes later, Bengaluru FC did pull level when the referee penalized Oleksandr Stetsenko for bringing down Daniel in the box after Dovale had played him through. Chhetri stepped up and made no mistake from the spot to make it 2-2 in the 65th minute.
With the visitors opting for time wasting tactics, the supporters in the stands were making their frustration known along with the Blues’ bench. Into the final quarter, Roca made two more changes bringing in Alwyn George and Boithang Haokip in place of Daniel and Nishu Kumar.

The Blues continued to put bodies up front creating chances, but were falling short in the rival box. Into the final ten minutes, Bengaluru FC created a few close chances from set pieces, but once again Istiklol managed to somehow block the attempts as the game ended 2-2.

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