Goa's maiden AFC Champions League run: a report card
- With new travel curbs being put in place for travellers from India across different parts of the world in light of the brutal second Covid-19 wave in the country, the foreign recruits had no option but to hurriedly depart for their homes.
On the eve of FC Goa’s last game of their debut AFC Champions League campaign, the club’s foreign contingent, including the coach and players, were informed that they would have to leave for their home countries as soon as possible or face the possibility of being stuck in India for an indefinite period.
With new travel curbs being put in place for travellers from India across different parts of the world in light of the brutal second Covid-19 wave in the country, the foreign recruits had no option but to hurriedly depart for their homes. “Due to the situation of the Covid in the world, yesterday the staff and foreign players had to take an urgent flight to Spain, it was a tough decision, since we wanted to play today's game, but the first thing is health,” midfielder Bedia wrote on his Instagram account.
“Tonight, I will be proudly cheering and watching the game online. FC Goa Indian players and technical staff will be defending our club and Indian football, and sure doing their best,” said head coach Juan Ferrando on Instagram ahead of the game.
With Ferrando gone, it was left to assistant coach Clifford Miranda to take charge of an all-Indian side for Thursday’s game against Al-Wahda. Without the key quartet of Bedia, Ivan Gonzalez, James Donachie and Jorge Ortiz, Goa were expected to struggle against the Emirati side.
And struggle Goa did throughout the 90 minutes as Al-Wahda thoroughly dominated proceedings, albeit without taking most of their chances. Goa had their backs to the wall for most of the game, and despite defending deep and narrow, they seemed more and more vulnerable as the game progressed, with the intensity of a superior opposition taking a toll on the players.
In the end, inability to convert their chances and a few good saves by Goa goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh, including a stunning left-handed save from point-blank range, meant Al-Wahda won by only a 2-0 scoreline. Omar Khrbin scored at the hour mark and Mohammed Barqesh netted the team’s second in the final minute of the game to seal victory.
The scoreline didn’t tell the entire story of the game. Al-Wahda had 25 attempts on goal, with eight on target, compared to Goa’s three, two of which were on target. The Henk ten Cate-coached team from UAE controlled two-thirds of possession and made almost twice the number of passes (523) as Goa (267), with a pass accuracy of 84% compared to Goa’s 64%.
Miranda, nevertheless, lauded his players for managing to keep things tight for large parts of the game. “We were up against one of the better teams in Asia, who are several notches above us. But our players gave a fantastic performance,” he said.
Goa finished their campaign with three points from their six games – three draws and three defeats – that placed them third in Group E, one above Qatar’s Al-Rayyan who are coached by former France boss Laurent Blanc. Al-Wahda progressed to the next round with 13 points as one of the six second-placed finishers from the group stages while Yahya Golmohammadi’s Persepolis secured 15 points to top the group.
While Goa will be disappointed by their inability to win any of their six games in what was the first ever Champions League group stage appearance by an Indian team, they will have quite a few positives to take from this tournament. Ferrando and his side showed tactical flexibility to adapt to superior oppositions and got a few morale-boosting results.
In their first 18 league games in the Indian Super League (ISL) season, FC Goa had 188 sequences with 10 or more passes, according to Opta – that is more than 10 such sequences per game. Goa wouldn’t enjoy the freedom to put together such moves so frequently in the Champions League, and they adapted. They kept a well-organised defensive shape in most of their games and made sure opponents had to work to get results.
In two of their three draws – against Al-Wahda in the second game and Al-Rayyan in the fifth – Goa could very well have grabbed wins with a little bit of luck on their side. Some of the Indian players impressed as well, the most notable being midfielder Brandon Fernandes and goalkeeper Dheeraj.
On the flip side, however, the team’s dependence on the foreign players was also underlined in this campaign. In both games where Bedia didn’t feature, in the 4-0 loss to Persepolis and 2-0 defeat to Al-Wahda, Goa’s midfield was overrun.
The centre-back duo of Gonzalez and Donachie were crucial to maintaining Goa’s defensive solidity and a multi-functional forward like Ortiz made sure Goa could pose a threat up front. The high level of intensity in the Champions League games also visibly wore the players out. Six games at this level within a fortnight was a new experience for most of the players in the squad.
It again underlined that Indian players, in particular, would need many more domestic games than the 20 available in the league phase of the ISL, to prepare for a competition like the Champions League.