Updated: April 20, 2021 8:28:49 am
Before FC Goa made their Asian Champions League debut on Wednesday night, most of the talk centred on what would be considered a respectable margin of defeat. That they would lose was largely a foregone conclusion. After all, they were up against a club – Qatar’s Al Rayyan – that is coached by French great Laurent Blanc and has many players who are likely to play in next year’s World Cup.
Yet, FC Goa defied all odds to snatch a draw. In a match played behind closed doors in Margao, the Indian side held their ground and frustrated Al Rayyan to settle for a goalless draw in the opening match of Group E. Although just a draw, the result is regarded as a step forward for Indian club football.
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What is the competition and who did FC Goa face on their debut?
The Asian Champions League is a tournament reserved for elite clubs from the continent. Until now, Indian clubs competed in the second-tier competition, the AFC Cup. This year onwards, the Asian Football Confederation’s expanded the Champions League from 32 teams to 40, which paved the way for an Indian club to compete in it.
In their first match, Goa faced Qatari Super League heavyweights Al Rayyan, who have played in the Asian Champions League 12 times. Coached by former France and Paris St-Germain manager Blanc, a winner of the 1998 World Cup, Al Rayyan have players like Iran’s Shoja Khalilzadeh and Algeria’s Yacine Brahimi – a World Cupper who also won the 2019 African Cup of Nations – in their squad. A lot of Qatari players in their squad are likely to get selected for next year’s World Cup, which the Gulf state will host. Al Rayyan, along with Persepolis, are the favourites to get out of Group E into the next stage.
Why is a goalless draw considered to be a significant result for FC Goa?
Goa were expected to be the whipping boys of the group that comprises teams from countries that are either regulars at the World Cup – Iran’s Persepolis and UAE’s Al Wahda – or are set to host it, in Al Rayyan’s case. The level of football most players play in these countries is of much higher quality than what the Indian Super League side is used to. They also have the experience and budget to remain competitive at this level. Hence, to walk away with a draw is seen as a good result for Goa.
How important is this for Indian football?
Very. Indian football has been occasionally punching above its weight in recent years. The national team has had some commendable performances, most notably against continental champions Qatar in the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers. The country’s clubs, too, have done decently in the AFC Cup. Wednesday’s result shows that with a little more hard work, Indian teams can hold their ground against much-fancied opponents.
More so, because the Asian Champions League allows less foreigners (four, including an Asian-origin player) in the playing 11 compared to the Indian domestic league (six including an Asian). That means Goa had to drop ISL’s top scorer Igor Angulo on Wednesday and instead hope that Indian players would step up to the occasion, which they did.
How did FC Goa play?
Blanc complained about the weather conditions and humidity in Goa, saying it had the ‘biggest impact’ on his team’s level. It is also pertinent to mention that the Qatari side had a tumultuous time travelling to India. They weren’t able to get a practice session on the pitch and had to train in their hotel because the results of their Covid tests came late, according to their team website.
Yet, it was expected that they had enough quality to see off the Goan challenge. But the Indian side, coached by Spain’s Juan Ferrando, came up with a spirited performance. When India held Qatar to a 0-0 draw in Qatar in 2019, the result was hailed but the performance was one where the team had its backs-against-the-wall and defended desperately for all 90 minutes.
FC Goa’s performance was anything but that. Ferrando’s team in the ISL has held itself dear to some basic principles. Be it passing the ball from the back or spreading play when with the ball and becoming compact without it –Goa have a particular style of play. While they weren’t able to replicate the dominance in playing with the ball as they do in India, the tenets of their game shone through. They enjoyed 44 per cent possession and had an 83 per cent passing accuracy rate – a creditable figure, considering only four foreign players were on the pitch for the team.
What next for FC Goa?
Goa will face Al Wahda in their next fixture on April 17. The UAE Pro League club made it to the AFC Champions League through the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean that they are an easy team to contend with. Al Wahda, too, are regulars in the Champions League and will be looking to get some points on the board after their 1-0 loss to Persepolis on Wednesday.
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