Hyderabad FC are through to the final of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL). For those who have been following the Hero ISL season closely, it should not come as a surprise.

Manuel Marquez’s side have been the complete package. Brilliant going forward, solid at the back and attractive to watch. All this with a strong core of Indian players that have grown with the team. To put it crisply, Hyderabad FC have been a model of how an ideal Hero ISL team should look.

Had it not been for injuries and illness at a crucial juncture of the campaign, Hyderabad FC may well have won the League Winners’ Shield. But despite falling short of doing so, Hyderabad FC were pretty much the favourites in most people’s eyes going into the semi-finals.

The reason was simple. They had goals in them. With 43 goals in the league stage, they were the top scorers in the Hero ISL. Of course, Bartholomew Ogbeche was leading the charge with 17 goals at the time. But the Nigerian wasn’t their only source of goals. Javier Siverio had chipped in with seven goals. The Indian players were also heavily involved, setting up 20 assists for Hyderabad FC in the league phase. At the other end, they could minimise the opportunities for their opponents and also keep clean sheets.

So even against an ATK Mohun Bagan side that were perhaps superior man to man, you’d have expected the team unit of Hyderabad FC to come up trumps.

ATK Mohun Bagan, last year’s finalists came into the contest with their own wrongs to right. They had missed out on the League Winners’ Shield on the final day for the second successive season. Having suffered defeat in last season’s final, the Mariners had more reason than anyone else to be desperate to taste success.

It panned out that way as ATK Mohun Bagan came flying out of the blockchain the first leg of the semi-final and took the lead early in the first leg. It seemed that they were hungrier and sharper than Hyderabad FC but Marquez’s men showed faith in their strength as a unit. They slowly found their feet, passed the ball around and built some momentum.

Ogbeche found the goal at the best possible time and Hyderabad FC’s engine was up and running. Like they have done on numerous occasions, they blew the opponent away with two more goals and within a blink of an eye, turned a 0-1 deficit into a 3-1 lead.

They were brutally clinical, almost hitting the opposition without even making them realise it. ATK Mohun Bagan then had catching up to do. For Hyderabad FC it was a position of strength. They could sit back and hit ATK Mohun Bagan on the break. They had their opponents exactly where they wanted to.

But the Mariners showed their class and their bench strength. They threw everything at Hyderabad FC who had defended valiantly to ensure the 3-1 victory in the first leg. The win had everything. Excellence, doggedness and mental strength to turn a precarious situation into a favourable one.

There was a sense that Hyderabad FC had done enough even with half of the tie left. ATK Mohun Bagan had left it too much to do against a team that didn’t just have the firepower but also the temperament to convert difficulties into opportunities.

But ATK Mohun Bagan, without their captain Tiri, somehow found a higher gear in the second leg. The more attack-minded Prabir Das was thrusted into the line-up and young sensation Kiyan Giri also started in attack.

The presence of these players and an almost complete license to have a go from the word go, unshackled the Mariners. They seized the initiative early and peppered Hyderabad FC with shots. 15 of them to be precise in the entire game compared to six of Hyderabad FC.

Marquez’s men, despite not having any plans to sit back, were forced into that mode. They had the lead on aggregate in the tie, but Hyderabad FC who were not used to playing on the back foot had surrendered the edge that the first leg scoreline had given them.

The aggressive start meant Mariners channelised their desperation to get back into the match in a positive way. As for Hyderabad FC, they were constantly made to stare at their worst fears on the night.

Fortunately, for Hyderabad FC, ATK Mohun Bagan let the chances that came their way pass up. However, they didn’t drop the intensity. They kept coming at Hyderabad FC who had precious few chances of their own. Both their shots on target in the game were from outside the penalty area. As for ATK Mohun Bagan, seven of their shots on goal were from inside the penalty area.

It meant that goalkeeper Laxmikanth Kattimani had to deliver a man of the match performance producing fine saves to deny the likes of Roy Krishna and Liston Colaco at vital junctures in the tie.

But despite being forced away from playing their natural game, Hyderabad FC didn’t lose their spirit. They were humble enough to accept the superiority of their opponents and stuck together as a defensive unit thwarting waves after waves of ATK Mohun Bagan attacks.

The Mariners were brilliant but they had to be at their very best to create an opportunity against the dogged Hyderabad FC defence.

The Hyderabad FC players covered every blade of grass to deny or hamper ATK Mohun Bagan from delivering the killer pass. Even after they were breached with 12 minutes left on the clock, Hyderabad FC kept their composure. ATK Mohun Bagan made the game as frantic as they could in the dying minutes but Hyderabad FC matched the Mariners’ quality and flair in attack with determination and focus in defence.

In the end, time ran out for the Mariners and Hyderabad FC got over the line.

Report: ATK Mohun Bagan 1-0 Hyderabad FC (agg: 2-3), Roy Krishna’s strike in vain as Manuel Marquez’s side reach final

Head coach Marquez was quick to point out after the game that despite the required result, the performance was not upto the mark, but it was perhaps what was required at that stage of the competition against an opponent who came good like only they can.

For once, Hyderabad FC were forced to change their ways, their monopoly over the tempo of their matches was challenged and even breached but Hyderabad FC emerged winners as they always do. It was not vintage from Hyderabad FC, but it was a victory in the end. One that was out of character, but one which would have been the sweetest in their brief history.