Before the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) semi-final between ATK Mohun Bagan and Hyderabad FC, there was plenty of intrigue. Both teams had charted slightly different trajectories in their last league game and boasted vastly different levels of experience at this stage of the competition.

For those wondering, HFC only qualified for semi-finals for the first time in their history this season. The Mariners, meanwhile, narrowly lost out on the title in 2020-21. From that standpoint alone, it seemed that ATK Mohun Bagan would make the most of their pedigree and land the first blow.

To an extent, that transpired too. Liston Colaco, who has been one of their standout players this term, slalomed down the left flank and teed up Roy Krishna, who finished off his chance with aplomb. Prior to that, they had dominated the early exchanges – even illustrating that their array of attacking talent could take the game away from Hyderabad FC.

HFC, though, like they have done quite often this season, bided their time and waited for their moment. After the concession of the goal, they grew in stature, they stitched together a few passes and started finding Bartholomew Ogbeche and Javier Siverio in the final third.

It wasn’t the sort of free-flowing display the Hero ISL has become accustomed to but it was just what they needed, considering ATK Mohun Bagan have the offensive resources to go for the jugular. And then on the stroke of half-time, it came together beautifully for Hyderabad FC.

For much of this campaign, HFC have not given up and have continued attacking the opposition with intensity. These traits came to the fore in first-half stoppage time when Juanan kept the ball alive and floated a cross towards Ogbeche. The latter made the net ripple and injected belief into Hyderabad FC’s ranks – belief that they could, irrespective of the opposition and the occasion, succeed in an attacking sense.

And once the second half began, it seemed that only one outcome was possible. Not because Hyderabad FC were attacking with renewed vigour, but also because they have scored more goals (24) than any other Hero ISL outfit in the second half in 2021-22.  

As always, Ogbeche was at the heart of everything good they did. This time, he picked up the ball in the attacking third and invited a challenge before threading a through-ball for Siverio. The Spaniard couldn’t get on the end of it but ensured that two defenders committed to the challenge, thereby leaving Mohammad Yasir unmarked on the edge of the box to stroke the ball into the far bottom corner.

A few minutes later, Hyderabad FC turned the tie on its head, with Yasir laying the ball on a plate for Siverio. That goal, by the way, came via a header - an avenue HFC seem to have mastered this campaign. Throughout the term, no team has scored more than the 14 headed goals that they have scored. In fact, no side has scored 10 or more headed goals this season.

Match Report: Hyderabad FC storm back against ATK Mohun Bagan to take the initiative in the semi-final

Apart from that, Hyderabad FC also showcased excellent tactical awareness and flexibility. For a major chunk of this term, their full-backs have forayed forward and have caused all sorts of problems.

Against a team of ATK Mohun Bagan’s class, though, they were content to sit back and were inclined to let their strikers – Ogbeche and Siverio hold play up and bring the others into the game. It wasn’t something they usually do but something they had the courage to unfurl – just when the situation demanded.

To an extent, Hyderabad FC were helped by the Mariners having an off day. Juan Ferrando’s men, who are usually brilliant at the back, looked a little rattled and were severely hampered after Tiri was stretchered off. There is a school of thought suggesting that they might have retreated into their shell too after scoring first.

That, though, might have largely been down to the threat Hyderabad FC posed. Before the semi-final, HFC had won 10 points from losing positions – a tally only bettered by ATK Mohun Bagan. Now, they have leapfrogged them – both in that context and in the race for the final.

Having said that, all is not doom and gloom for the Mariners. Not yet at least. Once they found themselves two goals behind, they flicked a switch and threw the kitchen sink at Hyderabad FC. They also struck the woodwork in the dying embers of the fixture. And if they return with that sort of intensity in the second leg, Hyderabad FC might have their hands full.

For now, though, this semi-final will remain defined by how Hyderabad FC stuck to their guns, kept attacking, and ultimately, fashioned a route to victory.

Till last season, they weren’t very free-scoring, especially in the games that mattered. So far this campaign, they seem primed to change that narrative. A lot can still change but a two-goal cushion means that this semi-final is most certainly Hyderabad FC’s to lose.