There was drama even before the teams entered the field of play. Roberto Carlos woke up on the morning of his final home match of the Indian Super League (ISL) facing two problems. One was FC Goa, a team managed by his mentor Zico. In his two previous attempts, Carlos could not outwit his master (Delhi, in fact had lost all four matches against Goa, including two matches played last season.)
The other, much graver, issue was out of the Brazilian’s control. Till Friday morning, Delhi apparently did not even have a stadium to host the first semifinal. The organisers had advised all eight clubs to book their venues till December 16, when the last semifinal will be played. For reasons best known to them, Delhi did not. Perhaps they did not expect to be in the last four. But the form in which they started the season, it was evident they would reach the knockouts.
Sources say the Delhi management was under the impression they had the venue. But the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium comes under the Sports Authority of India’s purview and, according to sources, Delhi never sought permission to rent the premises on December 11. It was instead rented to a school, who conducted their sports day. Fortunately for them, Delhi managed to get the necessary permissions by Friday noon, which then put the spotlight on Carlos and his men.
Defensively, Delhi have been solid this season. Former Liverpool man John Arne Riise had held the backline with authority, giving Delhi’s defence a scrooge-like image during the group stage.
However, the only team that has managed to unlock them is Goa, who scored 3 goals in the final league stage match between the two teams last week. That morale-boosting 3-2 win gave Goa the edge going into the semifinal.
But within a short span, Carlos managed to re-instill discipline and shape to his defence, which returned to being at its miserly best once again. Delhi won a physical first leg 1-0 thanks to Robin Singh’s opportunistic first half goal. It was a scoreline that pleased both managers.
The ISL does not have an away goal rule so Zico was happy that, even though they did not score, the margin of defeat wasn’t irreversible. Carlos, meanwhile, was delighted that his side finally could manage to beat Goa but was quick to admit that the second leg will be ‘very, very tough’.
Delhi ticked most boxes — they had more possession, passed the ball well and the scoreline favoured them. But Carlos would be worried over his side’s inability to convert opportunities that have come their way. Goal scoring hasn’t been Delhi’s strongest area this season. They have lacked a finisher, managing to score just 18 goals in the 14 group stage matches — only Pune and Mumbai had scored fewer. Against Goa, Carlos cut a frustrated figure yet again on the bench. Delhi had a dozen attempts on goal but only four were on target.
Malouda, the linkman
They bossed the midfield, the link-up play between Florent Malouda, Adil Nabi and Gustavo dos Santos spelled trouble for the visitors. Carlos may have been named Delhi’s marquee player but for all practical reasons, that task has been carried out with some authority by Malouda.
The Frenchman was once again a silent workhorse for Delhi, setting up his teammates regularly, but they somehow could not find the target. The best chance fell in the 41st minute, when Englishman Nabi squared the ball to Dos Santos, who was open in front of goal. He, however, tapped it wide. The very next minute, though, Robin rose above the towering Lucio to head home a delicious cross by Chicao to give Delhi the lead. Robin, often criticised for his inability to find the target for India and Bengaluru FC, has scored some important goals for Delhi this season. But none will be as important as the one he scored on Friday.
Goa, though, did not show urgency to press for the equaliser. They seemed content playing the support role, not forcing themselves on Delhi as they have in the previous matches. Zico used the match to rest Romeo Fernandes, Haokip and Mandar Rao Desai — three of his best Indian players — for Friday’s match and keep them fresh for the return leg. Consequently, Goa lacked pace on the wings, which is something Desai and Fernandes offer.
The return leg will be different, Carlos knows that. It is just half-time in this two-legged encounter and the lead, too, is slender. But Carlos, the student, is glad he finally could get the better of his master.
On Saturday: 2nd semi-final: Kolkata vs Chennai (Live on Star Sports 2 & 3, 7pm).