Chennaiyin FC went into Wednesday's AFC Cup fixture away to Nepal's Manang Marshyangdi in Lalitpur knowing that their fate wasn't in their hands. With eight points, they trailed Bangladesh club Dhaka Abahani by two points. With Abahani playing against Minerva in Guwahati at the same time, Chennaiyin needed a win to top the group and hope for a draw or a Minerva win in the other game to progress to the inter-zonal semi-finals. Not since 2012, when East Bengal and Salgaocar finished bottom of their respective groups in the older format, had AFC Cup not had Indian representation in the knockout stages.
Manang sat deep and frustrated Chennaiyin in a scoreless first half, where the visitors tried out the aerial route, fielding Mohammad Rafi as a lone striker, with the likes of Anirudh Thapa, Isaac Vanmalsawma and Thoi Singh supplying crosses for him. Meanwhile, Minerva had an early shot on goal through Samuel Lalmuanpuia, but then had to sit deep and defend against the Abahani midfield, with Sohel Rana, Mamunul Islam among those who tested goalkeeper Bhaskar Roy. Business would kick up in the second half at both venues, though.
Here's how the drama unfolded.
The tactic of swinging crosses in from the flanks pays off at last for Chennaiyin, as Thapa's cross in the 53rd minute is met by Rafi, who puts Chennaiyin in front. Minerva, in the meantime, become a bit more defensive, and have to deal with an Abahani variation on a free-kick in the 54th minute. The ball is slipped out to the left and then cut back in for a shot, but the Minerva defence stands tall.
All the action is in Lalitpur during this quarter. First, Chennaiyin believe they should have a penalty in the 63rd minute, as Rafi takes a tumble inside the box after going up for another aerial ball, flighted in from the left. What he sees instead is a yellow card.
Three minutes later, Eli Sabia works a one-two while venturing forward and rounds off Shrestha to neatly tuck the ball into the net. There seems to be no way that Chennaiyin can lose from here...
...except that Manang's Nigerian striker Afeez Oladipo has other ideas. He takes advantage of a high defensive line to pick the ball up just inside the Chennaiyin box, surge ahead of the backtracking defenders, and slot the ball high into the opposition net.
Oladipo doubles his score in the 80th minute, advancing past Mailson Alves from the left and opening his body up a bit to place the ball low to goalkeeper Karanjit Singh's left. It's 2-2, and at this stage Chennaiyin are going out, irrespective of what happens to Abahani.
Coach John Gregory introduces Dhanpal Ganesh to shore up the midfield, and Chennaiyin get a chance at redemption when Isaac is awarded a free-kick after a rough challenge from Sujal Shrestha. The set piece is circulated to Sabia, whose quick attempt hits the post but ricochets to an unmarked Rafi, who has an easy tap in. Chennaiyin are back in business!
Chennaiyin wrap their game up, but there are solemn handshakes around as they come to know of what has happened in Guwahati.
Afghanistan international and striker Masih Saighani is played in on a counter by an increasingly desperate Abahani, and his first shot is deflected for a corner in the third minute of added time. The corner is floated in at the back post, and headed back into play, just in time for Saighani to beat a crowd of Minerva defenders and knock the ball in.
Abahani players and support staff crowd the field as they celebrate. Their dream stays alive, at least for another round, even as India's AFC Cup comes to its earliest end in seven years.