The Gaurs finished third in Group E, behind last season’s runners-up Persepolis and Emirati giants Al Wahda.
It was going to be a hard few weeks. FC Goa were in unfamiliar territory in the AFC Champions League (ACL), so unfamiliar that they would be the first-ever team from the subcontinent to be there. And yet they persevered, toiled thoroughly and were promising for long stretches of their campaign in the continental competition. To call the stint a resounding success would be a bit much. But, let’s see this as the first frame in a bigger picture and what it means for the future of football in this proud nation. In such a case, it doesn’t hurt to be optimistic.
Placed in Group E, there was a sense of bewilderment. How would the newbies be able to compete against the heavyweights of the continent like Iranian side Persepolis (ACL 2018 and 2020 runners-up), Al Wahda from UAE (12 appearances in ACL) and Qatari side Al Rayyan managed by French legend Laurent Blanc? It was a humongous road ahead by all means. All realistic valuations saw FC Goa occupy the bottom spot in the group. Even one point from six matches was predicted as an optimistic result. But, the Gaurs blocked out all the chatter and went to work.
A quick recap
Playing in Goa, the Gaurs put up a fantastic display in the first two matches against Al Rayyan and Al Wahda. In both games, they gave the opposition very little to work with. Juan Ferrando and his men worked hard, denying time and space to the opposition to play football, while posing a threat on the counter. During the rare occasions they managed to find a lane, they were denied by the ever-improving Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem in goal.
Then came the double-header against giants Persepolis, who had breezed past Al Wahda and Al Rayyan in the first two matches. The Gaurs surprised everyone by taking the lead early in the first half, their first-ever goal in the ACL. But, the strength of Persepolis battered their resolute defence, who eventually conceding two goals which gave the Iranians the victory. The second match against them was a lopsided affair, with a severely depleted Goa side finding it difficult to match the tenacity and intensity of the Iranians.
The fifth match promised to be the most impressive one by the Gaurs. They took a third-minute lead against Al Rayyan and battled hard to maintain it before conceding a late equalizer to share the points. The last match proved to be a moot affair with only Indian players featuring for the home side. They ended up losing 2-0 to Al Wahda who secured qualification to the next stage.
Overall, FC Goa finished third in Group E of AFC Champions League 2021, with three points and a goal-difference of -7. They finished ahead of Al Rayyan in fourth place.
The third-place finish in itself was impressive, as they were expected to be at the bottom of the group before the matches started. And it was not by fluke or fortune. The Gaurs displayed some great performances, mainly at the defensive end but occasionally at the offensive end as well.
In the third match, against Persepolis, FC Goa took an early lead. They also had the chance to make it 2-0, but it required a brilliant stop from the Persepolis keeper Hamed Lak to deny Brandon Fernandes. The fifth match saw them push Al Rayyan to the limit, nearly getting a deserved victory against the Qatari side. An unfortunate mix-up cost them the three points, which would have highlighted an eventful campaign. The Gaurs showed immense mental aptitude.
Another big positive was the performance of many key Indian players. Dheeraj Singh quickly vaulted himself into the spotlight, gaining two matchday team nods with impressive performances between the sticks. Overall, he kept two clean-sheets in his five appearances. He even got praise from Al Wahda manager Henk ten Cate after the sixth game. Brandon was involved in both the goals scored by the Gaurs and he was highly influential in the defensive side of the pitch as well. Seriton Fernandes showcased his maturity and energy with high-octane performances, while Glan Martins played an effective screen in front of the defence. Sanson Pereira, Alexander Romario Jesuraj, Ishan Pandita, Saviour Gama, Devendra Murgaonkar and Amarjit Singh Kiyam also got a good amount of game-time.
The Gaurs did look seriously depleted in the last game without the Spaniards. Now, that’s a worrying trend that needs to be addressed by the ISL as a whole. They did manage to hold the UAE side for close to 60 minutes, but the attack failed to ignite as effectively as it did against Al Rayyan in the fifth game.
But, apart from that, Goa’s and India’s first steps in the premier continental competition looked promising. With the right tools and mindset, the future will provide more promising endeavours in the Champions League. Remember, Mumbai City FC are set to feature in the next edition.