Under Juan Ferrando, the Gaurs will play their first-ever ACL game on Wednesday.
The moment we have all been waiting for is closing in on us. In less than 36 hours, Indian Super League (ISL) outfit FC Goa will create history as the first team ever from India to take part in the AFC Champions League (ACL) group stages. It is truly a remarkable occasion for Indian football as, among other things, it definitely proves that the sport is developing in the country.
To give fans a bit of a backdrop, the Gaurs qualified for ACL 2021 by virtue of their performance in the 2019-20 season of the ISL. Under then head coach Sergio Lobera, the team finished at the top of the points table in the ISL 2019-20 league stage. That, in turn, earned them the right to take part in the continental competition. However, a lot of things have changed since then. For instance, Lobera is no longer with the side and the same goes for a few players who played a key role in the team achieving ACL qualification.
Coming back to the present, FC Goa will begin their AFC Champions League 2021 Group E campaign on Wednesday, April 14 by taking on Al-Rayyan, the Qatari club led by head coach Laurent Blanc. In this article, Khel Now previews the upcoming game in full detail. Read on!
Season So Far
After topping the league standings in ISL 2019-20, FC Goa had to part ways with several members of that squad last summer. Sergio Lobera left for Mumbai City and took with him Hugo Boumous, Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh, Amey Ranawade and Mandar Rao Dessai. The fact that MCFC later won ISL 2020-21 and also qualified for ACL 2022 by finishing first on the points table, proves the influence that Lobera and the above players had at the Goan side last season.
Regardless, Goa did a good job replacing all or most of those that left. Juan Ferrando joined them as the new coach and helped them reach the ISL 2020-21 playoffs. A strong Mumbai side later eliminated them in a penalty shootout. The outgoing Ferran Corominas was replaced by Igor Angulo, who ended up becoming the ISL 2020-21 Golden Boot winner. The other foreign signings in Jorge Ortiz, Alberto Noguera, Ivan Gonzalez and James Donachie also impressed.
A noted upgrade would be that of Edu Bedia, who had only a sparing role in the team during the 2019-20 season of the ISL. Bedia was mostly overshadowed by Boumous, but after the Moroccan-born Frenchman left the team, he was restored to the starting XI.
The Spaniard responded by clocking 1720 minutes on the pitch and made the most passes during the season (1496). He also registered three assists as the Gaurs finished fourth on the league standings (31 points from 20 games). The team’s domestic contingent that includes Saviour Gama, Glan Martins, Ishan Pandita and so on also did well.
Al-Rayyan had a really strong season in 2019-20. They fought till the end for the Qatar Stars League (QSL) title, but eventually fell short by a single point. Champions Al-Duhail had 52 points while Al-Rayyan had 51.
In the 2020-21 season, Al-Rayyan endured a tough start under Uruguayan Diego Aguirre. They spent a lot of time as a mid-table side, before a managerial change saw Laurent Blanc come in. The Frenchman propelled the Qatari side to third place, which is where they finished their league campaign. Overall, they had 35 points from 22 matches.
Stakes at ACL 2021
This is Goa’s first-ever campaign in the AFC Champions League. As head coach Ferrando has already mentioned, the club are keen to perform well and nothing more. There is certainly very little hope of the side making it past the group stage. By no means is this a fault of the Gaurs, because their opponents in Group E – Al-Rayyan, Al-Wahda and Persepolis are stronger on-paper and also have prior experience in the competition. The team should hence be concentrating on just trying their very best and be hopeful that results will follow.
Furthermore, the ACL has an additional rule that the ISL doesn’t have yet. It is the ‘3+1 foreigners’ rule, which says that only four overseas players – one of who is from an AFC-affiliated nation – can be a part of any team. In the ISL, you could have up to seven foreign players in your team. Also, while you could have only five overseas names in the playing XI at any given time, it was not mandatory to play an AFC-affiliated foreigner. Ferrando hence had plenty of options to choose from during ISL 2020-21, a luxury which he will not have in the Champions League.
As a result, ISL top scorer Angulo and top assist-provider Noguera have been left out of the squad, with Ortiz, Gonzalez, Donachie (AFC-affiliated) and Bedia overtaking them in the Spanish coach’s order of preference. As of right now, it looks like he made a good call to pick both the foreign defenders in his team (Donachie had to be picked as he was the lone Asian). This is because defensive stability will be a key aspect in the Goan side’s ACL 2021 campaign.
It would be interesting to see how the 40-year-old overcomes these odds and lines FC Goa up in the upcoming clash against Al-Rayyan. Undoubtedly, they would look to do well against the Qatari side and maybe even try and come off with a win, if possible.
Al-Rayyan’s last AFC Champions League campaign ended in disaster, losing to Iran-based Esteghlal FC 5-0 in the playoffs. They would hence be keen to make amends this season – but just like in the case of FC Goa, it will not be easy for them to make it past the group stage. A win against the Gaurs would make things slightly easier for the Qatari side, but by no means will it be job done yet.
Fans’ expectations on Laurent Blanc are also high, based on initial observations. The Frenchman helped Al-Rayyan finish third in the QSL this season, after a troublesome start to their campaign. They could have finished even higher, in second place, but that did not happen after they failed to win their last three league matches.
Those are also the most recent games that the team played. They are hence on a three-match winless run, while their Goan opponents are unbeaten in their last 15 outings. Blanc and Co. will be keen to prove that such streaks are meaningless when it comes to Asia’s top club competition.
Brandon Fernandes is back and is likely to be available for selection. He had a mediocre campaign in ISL 2020-21 due to injuries and would be keen to show fans what they have been missing.
The rest of the squad is fully fit and FC Goa coach Juan Ferrando can easily pick whoever he wants, as they prepare to take on Al-Rayyan.
Last Wednesday, the Qatari club announced that Argentinian defender Gabriel Mercado will miss the AFC Champions League 2021 group stage due to a knee injury. All the other key players are available for selection.
FC Goa: Dheeraj (GK); Seriton, Donachie, Gonzalez, Saviour; Glan, Bedia; Romario, Brandon, Ortiz; Pandita.
Al-Rayyan: Younes (GK); Khalilzadeh, Umar, Traore, Muftah; Kom, Hatem; Awad, Brahimi, Al-Hadhrami; Boli.
Man to Watch
Edu Bedia (FC Goa)
The Gaurs’ skipper is also the most important man to watch in a team full of talented names. Bedia was one of the standout performers during FC Goa’s ISL campaign. He will be assigned the role of controlling the tempo of the game and is likely to receive assistance from Glan Martins, who could play in a double-pivot with him in midfield.
The 32-year-old maintained a passing accuracy of 79.27% all season. He will hopefully use his control over the ball and good passing capabilities to create goalscoring opportunities for the former ISL table-toppers against Al-Rayyan.
Yohan Boli (Al-Rayyan)
The 27-year-old Cote d’Ivorian international has registered 12 goals and three assists from 27 games so far in the 2020-21 season. A centre-forward by trade, Boli would be the focal point of Al-Rayyan’s attack and he could be a lethal threat for FC Goa, by looking to finish off chances that come from Yacine Brahimi, Naif Al-Hadhrami and Mowaffaq Awad who play behind him.
At 1.81m in height, Boli would also be good at scoring off aerial balls. FC Goa defenders Gonzalez and Donachie will definitely have a busy job in containing the Al-Rayyan striker.
The AFC Champions League 2021 Group E match between FC Goa and Al-Rayyan is set to be played at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Goa from 10:30pm IST on Wednesday. It will be telecast live on Star Sports 3. The game will also be streamed live on Disney+Hotstar and Jio TV.