Reliving FC Goa’s maiden AFC Champions League campaign
Six-time Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) semi-finalists FC Goa received plaudits for their eye-catching performance in the group stage of the 2021 AFC Champions League. Placed in Group E (West Region), the Gaurs were up against some of the seasoned teams in the region like Iran’s Persepolis FC, Qatari side Al Rayyan SC and Al Wahda from the United Arab Emirates. The Gaurs made India proud at the highest level in Asian football, no two ways about it considering it was their maiden foray into the AFC Champions League -- in fact the first-ever for an Indian club into the group stage of the competition. Here let’s relive Juan Ferrando’s men’s campaign match-by-match that saw them draw three and lose three to finish third in the group.
Good start against Al Rayyan SC (0-0 draw)
Gaurs goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh stole the show in the team’s first game. While they lacked teeth in the attacking department, in defence they were top-notch. Ivan Gonzalez, James Donachie, Seriton Fernandes and Sanson Pereira with Dheeraj in goal proved too hot to handle for the Qatari outfit. Yacine Brahimi and Yohan Boli were threats all through the match, however, the Gaurs backline proved impregnable. Dheeraj in particular had a great game and got in the way of Al Rayyan SC’s goal-scoring aspirations on quite a few occasions. It may be noted that the Gaurs were a bit unlucky as well, as one of their crosses late in the game struck the hand of an Al Rayyan SC defender in the box but the referee didn’t deem it to be a penalty.
The Gaurs keep up the good work against Al Wahda (0-0 draw)
The Gaurs came up with another solid defensive performance against UAE’s Al Wahda. However in the attacking department, they continued to struggle barring Brandon Fernandes striking the post in the second half. Dheeraj went from strength to strength and again came up with several important saves against the likes of Khalil Ibrahim, Tim Matavz and Omar Khribin. Alexander Jesuraj also picked up his second yellow of the group stage which ruled him out of the next encounter against Iranian giants Persepolis FC.
Ferrando’s men at last score, against Persepolis FC (1-2 defeat)
In the lead-up to the game against Persepolis FC, Ferrando had admitted they needed to improve massively up front and that’s exactly what they did in their third game of the group stage. Skipper Edu Bedia provided the Gaurs the lead in the 13th minute as he met a fine ball from Brandon with his head and directed it past Persepolis FC goalkeeper Hamed Lak. Moments later, Brandon could have doubled the lead if not for Lak’s brilliance in goal. The euphoria for FC Goa proved short-lived though as two-time AFC Champion League finalists scored two quick goals through Mehdi Torabi and Jalal Hosseini to take control of the match. Things could have been worse for Ferrando’s men if not for Dheeraj who saved Hossein Kanaani’s penalty minutes before the break. The Gaurs, however, upped the ante defensively in the second half and to their credit didn’t concede another against a very strong opposition.
Persepolis FC overwhelm Ferrando’s men (0-4 defeat)
The Gaurs played the Red Army again a couple of days later and this time they couldn’t be as competitive as the first time. Skipper Edu Bedia couldn’t feature in the game on account of picking up two yellow cards in the previous matches and his absence, along with that of Dheeraj, did bring down FC Goa’s performance. Shahriyar Moghanlou, Torabi, Issa Alekasir and Kamal Kamyabinia scored for the Red Army as FC Goa had no answer to their attacking prowess. Naveen Kumar, who kept goal in the absence of Dheeraj, had a horrible game and it was a nothing short of a miracle that Yahya Golmohammadi’s men didn’t score a few more.
So close and yet so far against Al Rayyan SC (1-1 draw)
In their penultimate group stage game against Al Rayyan SC, the Gaurs started well as Jorge Ortiz ran ahead to dispatch a Brandon ball into the net in the third minute of the game. Attack-wise, FC Goa improved by leaps and bounds and looked threatening in the final third on quite a few occasions. The defence did a great job too and just when it looked like that they will at last register their first win of the competition, a big heart-breaker came in the 89th minute through substitute Ali Farydoon as the Qatari outfit equalised to the great disappointment of the FC Goa camp.
End to a bitter-sweet campaign against Al Wahda (0-2 defeat)
FC Goa played against Al Wahda without their foreign players as well as head coach Ferrando as all had been advised to fly back home immediately in view of the new travel policies of European and other countries in regard to travellers from Covid-gripped India. Although the Gaurs fought valiantly, they could not stop a 2-0 defeat. Khribin and Mohammed Al Menhali scored in the second half to secure a second position in the group and a place in the Round of 16 being one of three best runner-up teams from the West Region. Dheeraj had to be replaced on account of injury and he bowed out after a whopping 26 saves in five games, most by a goalkeeper in the group stage. At the end of it, Persepolis FC topped the group with five wins and advanced to the next round. The Gaurs took the third place with three points, ahead of Al Rayyan SC on two.