21st February, 2019. It was a hard day for everyone who loves the orange Gaur crest; even more so for the players. That game had brought to an end a run of six unbeaten games and a league record of 528 minutes of not conceding a goal. However, what it did was bring about a moment that will forever seal the story that is FC Goa this season.
As the home crowd went wild and the Bengaluru players and personnel celebrated around him, Brandon Fernandes stood there to take his ‘Emerging Player of The Game’ award - an orange in the middle of an ocean of blue.
The chants from the West Block Blues were quite loud and quite clear. “F*#k you Goa” and “You suck” filled the air at the Kanteerava Stadium after the Blues had trounced to a 3-0 win over the Gaurs. A big defeat normally sees the losing team scurry to the tunnel and into the dressing room. But then again, not all teams are this season’s FC Goa. And Brandon was not alone.
Across the pitch, the men in Orange remained seated in the dugout – refusing to go back without their comrade.
What will come of this season’s playoffs is anyone’s guess. But, what is for sure is that this is a ‘team’ in the truest sense of the word. This is FC Goa.
More than just numbers
There are hefty numbers that will be attached to FC Goa this season. The common folks will revel about the number of goals scored - 36; the clean sheets – a league-leading 8, and Coro’s brilliance that has seen him bag 15 goals and 7 assists (leading the league in both categories).
Other number crunchers will delve deeper into the stats to figure that Goa, amongst a whole lot of different parameters has indeed had the most number of touches, passes, shots and leads the league in possession of the ball.
All these numbers certainly have a point. They tell a story, but not always the full one, at least not of the love story that has been the Gaurs’ season.
When you’re watching a game that involves FC Goa, there are a few dominant themes that run the rule over any other: the goals, the brilliance of Coro, and of course, the style with which they play.
The coach wants to focus on the style, but to a young child or an everyday fan, the thrill of a victory is ever so more appealing. With FC Goa you have it all. You have a reason to fall in love with the beautiful game.
Last year, under the tutelage of Sergio Lobera, the Gaurs showed that on their day, they can beat anybody in India. That ‘anybody’ includes those in the ilk of Bengaluru FC and Chennaiyin FC – last season’s finalists.
Everyone would go, “Who is going to stop this team?” as they blazed their opponents time and again. Then, it was followed by a couple of underwhelming performances as people bemoaned, “Do they really have it to make it to the finals?”
They eventually did not and there was much debate as to what caused such haphazard patterns, but one thing was for sure - this FC Goa team were a credible threat. And with the core of the team remaining intact, the same can be said this season as well.
“I really wanted to avoid them (FC Goa),” stated John Gregory, the man who led Chennaiyin FC to the title last season in the pre-match press conference of their last game. “Of all the teams that were there in the final four, I looked at Goa and I was like, ‘I don’t want to face these guys’. I played the reserves in the last game and I thought we will finish fourth and play Bengaluru. But it was such a good season that our reserves won and we ended up playing Goa. It worked out well enough for us in the end of course.”
A team with a real bite
That FC Goa likes scoring goals is no new revelation. Having sealed qualification for the second season running they are no longer just cute or a fluke. This team is no paper tiger, they pack a real bite.
Whilst the core has remained the same, one can’t overlook the fact that there have been changes – small in number, but ones that could have had huge implications. Manuel Lanzarote was a vital cog in the Goa machine last season and his departure brought with it big questions to be answered. Pronay Halder was another departure that the Gaurs could have well done without.
Whilst these were serious questions, the management along with the players brought in showed that there were indeed solutions to them. Jackichand Singh and Lenny Rodrigues have proved to be inspired acquisitions, whilst Brandon Fernandes is undoubtedly having his best season.
At the back, the strength of Mourtada Fall has found a complimentary partner in the calm of Carlos Peña. Meanwhile in goal, Mohammad Nawaz and Naveen Kumar have lent solidarity to the Gaurs’ defensive efforts. And we have not yet scratched on the performances of the two talismans in the middle – Edu Bedia and Ahmed Jahouh.
“When a team concede goals, people tend to look at only defenders and goalkeepers. For me, though, it’s different,” Sergio Lobera stated on the improved numbers. “We defend as a team and because of the personnel we have this season, we have been able to press our opponents high and recover early.” And if people were worried about whether Goa was more pragmatic in their approach, they should see the numbers again. 36 goals from 18 games have been combined with 8 clean sheets. It could have been 11 had it not been for meaningless consolation goals given away in added time.
Then again, these are just numbers.
The final stretch
This is a special team. Make no doubts about it and that proclamation comes not only from the Goa fans but also from opposing coaches who have gone to outright state that the Gaurs are the favourites this season.
Will this team’s potential ever be realised without a trophy in the cabinet? Only time will tell. They have already commanded both respect and fear, and deservedly so. Whatever else that needs to be accomplished will have to be taken care of in the next fortnight. Then again legitimacy is a hard-won thing.
On song, FC Goa can occupy an entire echelon all by themselves, everyone else flattened out. The playoffs, however, are a different ball game. But a year wiser, the team and the coach have a better grasp on the demands of the knock-out stage.
“We need to concentrate on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’. We need to remember how we do things rather than think about what we want to achieve,” states Sergio Lobera on heading into the playoffs. “Last season, with the qualification coming down to the wire we were more focussed on the ‘what’ and that led to some trouble. This year we are focussing on the how and that is our philosophy of football – that has brought us so much success.”
This FC Goa team doesn’t have the marquee names of 2015 or the mean streak of last season. However, just like the words of the head coach, there is an assuredness about this Goa side unlike any we have seen before.
They do have their weaknesses and hence, the mid-season hiccup and the blips against Jamshedpur and Bengaluru. However, what has been impressive is that they have found solutions as well as a balance between going forward and attacking.
Sergio Lobera has changed line-ups and tactics but never abandoned the identity. And within this amalgamation of talent, balance and philosophy comes out an assuredness that by the time the referee blows his final whistle, this team will have figured out what it needs to do.
In all, FC Goa has a pleasing frictionlessness to it. They are no longer prickly, not-totally-optimized hodgepodge of talent.
Sure, they have been trying things out; sometimes scrambling but rarely overmatched. They seem to always know what they’re doing, together, all at once.