FC Goa have already achieved their goal of elevating themselves to the next level even before the end of the 2019-20 Indian Super League (ISL) thanks to a rather unusual rule approved by the ever-obliging bosses at the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
The Goa franchise created “history” after topping the league stage. They are the first club set to play directly at the group stage of the prestigious Asian Champions League (ACL) from India -- a slot reserved for champion sides from each league. They are “champions” even before the ISL championship could be decided, via the ISL playoffs.
Of course, as table-toppers FC Goa probably deserve it. That they finished the league stage five points clear of their nearest rivals, ATK, is a testimony of their domination for five months.
The Goa franchise, though, has a tough task at hand on Saturday night (March 7). Can they emulate the miracle of Anfield when they meet Chennaiyin FC at the Fatorda Stadium in the second leg of their ISL semifinal? Their fans would be hoping so, after seeing their side go down 1-4 in Chennai.
What Liverpool did on that incredible Anfield night last May is already a part of football folklore. To expect something on those lines in Indian football is asking for too much. But football is always a great leveller. It is a game that never ceases to surprise.
In the first leg of the Champions League last year, FC Barcelona blanked Liverpool 3-0 at the Camp Nou. Injuries had severely weakened Liverpool’s cause was the excuse trumpeted by their fans. This is no attempt to compare, but the return of the injured Hugo Boumous and Brandon Fernandes could be a huge boost for Goa.
Boumous has been a revelation this season. With 11 goals and 10 assists, he is one of the finest in the ISL. With him back, Ferran Corominas could prove to be more dangerous. That they have scored 25 goals between themselves prove their remarkable utility on the pitch.
On the other hand, the fans would like to see Brandon excel, no matter which team they back in Indian domestic football. Brandon has not come from France or Spain. He is Goa’s very own local boy with true potential. With a little more game sense, he could be a game changer.
Well, all said done, the margin is still 4-1 in favour of Chennaiyin. And, it is never easy to beat a team that a coach himself wants to avoid. Goa boss Clifford Miranda said as much on record before the first leg. His words proved prophetic in less than 24 hours!
Chennaiyin’s progress has been amazing this season. Almost a rags to riches story. Those who followed their fortunes were not exactly surprised by the first leg scoreline. Having clinched 20 points from the last eight matches, Owen Coley’s boys look like they are geared up for the kill.
If Nerijus Valskis of Lithuania, whose recruitment was initially rejected by the AIFF, played the key role behind the team’s comeback with 13 strikes and six assists, then the presence of some Indians can’t be discounted too. Anirudh Thapa or Lallianzuala Chhangte played important roles in the turnaround.
Overall, it should be an engrossing battle Saturday night. It could make one forget the huge gap in the first-leg scoreline. FC Goa have always done well on home turf. To tame them, Chennaiyin should display the same aggression they showed in the first leg.
Unlike the first semifinal, the second leg at the Yubabharati Krirangan in Kolkata on Sunday night (March 8) should be a more open one. Bengaluru FC, leading by a solitary first leg goal against ATK, can hardly take anything for granted. The slender advantage could slip away anytime.
Both ATK and Bengaluru fell well behind FC Goa in the run up for the top spot in league stage. Yet, at times, the Kolkata side looked like the team to watch this season. The reason was simple – the presence of Roy Krishna and David Williams made all the difference.
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One comes from Fiji, the other from Australia. They love to hunt in pairs. Between them, they have scored 19 goals and looked absolutely capable of many more. They can liven up the proceedings at any time. In any match. That’s the biggest quality of the two foreign recruits.
To erase the deficit of one goal is no big deal for Antonio Habas’ side. They have the squad and the required depth. ATK are soon merging with a team which look set to become runaway winners of the I-League this season, Mohun Bagan. ATK would certainly like to match the feat of their newly-acquired friends.
Yet, finally, all eyes will be on Bengaluru FC. Not because they are considered the most successful story of modern Indian club football, but because they have a host of footballers, who are hopes of the national team. And they also have Sunil Chhetri.
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Frankly, Hugo Boumous or Roy Krishna’s heroics on the field matter little to Indian fans. In fact, one suspects, it doesn’t matter at all. Fans at ATK’s home ground would still visit the stadium to watch Chhetri. They would love to see their national skipper coming up on top.
But can Chhetri do it? In the highly disappointing AFC Cup defeat against Maziya, Chhetri was definitely not at his best. One hopes Nishu Kumar would take the field; Udanta Singh would break into a run in the manner he did against Myanmar in the Asian Cup qualifier not so long ago.
The two second leg semifinals at the weekend could be engrossing and well contested. May the best team win is the obvious. To add to it, may the local boys play the decisive roles. That’s the only way to take Indian football to the next level.
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