Hunt for the #NewChampion: Will Goa’s symphony strike the right chord?

After narrowly missing out on the title in 2015, FC Goa have earned themselves a second chance to put their names in the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) history books. This time, however, they look like they have everything in their arsenal to go all the way. A tactical genius, a goal-scoring phenomenon, creative midfielders and a defensive powerhouse make Goa prime contenders to take home the spoils on Sunday.

Despite their 0-1 loss to Mumbai City on Tuesday, their emphatic 5-1 victory during the first leg ensured their passage to the final. Bengaluru FC, however, will be a completely different threat and given their inferior head-to-head record, the Gaurs will only be too wary of the kind of threat they possess. But since the turn of the year, Goa have been on a relentless run of form, often cruising past any opposition that come in their stride. We look at their highlights and the players who could win them the tie against Bengaluru.

The coach

Over the past two seasons, Goa have been one of the most consistent sides in the league and a large part of this success has been down to the tactical acumen displayed by Sergio Lobera. The Spaniard has turned the side into the league’s most lethal attacking unit with 84 goals since the start of the 2017-18 campaign.

In his debut season, Lobera was hailed for his attacking intent but a frequent criticism of his side was their inability to hold their fort, especially during the crucial stages of the campaign. Looking at their statistics from the present campaign, Lobera seems to have found the final piece to his jigsaw puzzle.

The Gaurs have conceded the joint-lowest number of goals (22) and possess the joint-highest number of clean sheets (7) in the league. Upfront, they have scored an astonishing 41 goals – the most by any team. These numbers make for impressive viewing and it would not be outlandish to argue that Lobera’s men could just be the most complete side in the league.

Lobera has often switched between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-5-1 system, based largely on the opposition at hand. The tough tackling of Lenny Rodrigues complemented by Ahmed Jahouh’s passing range, gives the creative chiefs such as Edu Bedia and Hugo Boumous the freedom to strut their stuff on the pitch. Another outlet which has worked well for Goa has been down the flanks with the likes of Brandon Fernandes and Jackichand Singh. Goa have scored an impressive 16 goals from direct crosses, the most in the league.

The team

Few would argue that Goa possess the most talented individuals in the league. But what truly makes this team tick is their ability to work in tandem as a team to devastating effect. After starting the season with a 2-2 draw against Northeast United, the Gaurs would go on a four-match winning streak with big victories against the likes of Mumbai City and FC Pune City. A few subpar performances saw them drop down the table towards the end of the first half of the campaign. However, Lobera and Co. turned things around in emphatic fashion since the turn of the year, dismantling most of their opponents.

While several people will associate Goa’s successes to Ferran Corominas’ form, it has to be noted that players have stood out in every department of the pitch. Mohammad Nawaz and Naveen Kumar have put in phenomenal performances between the sticks.  Nawaz restored Lobera’s faith in him as first-choice ’keeper by producing a series of impressive performances throughout the season. Kumar, who has now replaced Nawaz after an injury lay-off, has equally contributed at the back, most notably during the semi-final tie against Mumbai City with a string of fine saves.

At the back, Mourtada Fall and Carlos Pena have formed an almost unbreakable force. In the past 10 matches, Goa have conceded a total of just six goals. Upfront, several players have chipped in with important goals. Corominas leads the goal-scoring charts with 15 goals, followed by Bedia with seven and Jackichand with four.

Unsurprisingly, Goa’s scintillating performances have drawn praise from the Hero ISL fraternity, including Chennaiyin FC head coach John Gregory. “They have been the outstanding team of this season. I always look forward to watching FC Goa play. They are very pleasing on the eye, a very good footballing side. Without a doubt, for me, they are the favourites to win the Hero ISL title this season.”

Key stats from Goa’s season

  • Goa were the highest scorers in the league campaign with 36 goals in 18 matches.
  • Ferran Corominas is the leading goal-scorer in the Hero ISL this season (15 goals).
  • The Spaniard also has seven assists so far — the second-most in the league after Arnold Issoko.
  • Ahmed Jahouh has attempted the highest number of passes in the league this season (1394).
  • The Gaurs have three of the top-five assist providers in the league so far.
  • Corominas has the most shots on target in the league so far (31).
  • Goa conceded 20 goals at the end of the league campaign- the second-lowest total after NorthEast’s 18.

Players to watch out for

Mourtada Fall

The Senegalese arrived in the Hero ISL at the start of the current campaign and immediately looked a part of the FC Goa setup. Tall, strong and good with his feet, Fall had all the makings of a top-class defender, capable of playing in a sophisticated system where possession counts for far more than anything. However, some lapses in concentration and lack of proper positioning did leave him in trouble at the start of the season with more and more teams targeting the fragility of the Gaurs defence led by the 31-year-old.

Working on his weak links, Fall showed massive improvement in the second-half of the campaign where the Gaurs kept six straight clean-sheets en route to reaching the knock-out stages. In the semi-final first leg against Mumbai, the towering defender went a step further to bag two goals in a thumping 5-1 away success. With form on his side, the likes of Miku and Sunil Chhetri will have their work cut-out against the Senegalese on Sunday.

Edu Bedia

The playmaker was in and out of the Goa starting XI in the first-half of the season due to his lack of consistency as compared to his team-mates. Having worked on it, Bedia began to feature more regularly, operating in behind Corominas to set-up goalscoring chances for his fellow attackers. His tally of five assists and seven goals makes him the second-most prolific Gaurs player after Corominas. The Spaniard’s free-role also enables him to occasionally drop deep and get on the ball more often than his usual position permits. The 29-year-old has thus, attempted 1200+ passes so far- the second-most after Jahouh.

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