ACL 2021: With strong midfield and backline, FC Goa hold Qatar’s Al Rayyan

On debut at the AFC Champions League group stage, FC Goa punched above their weight to hold Qatar Super League club Al Rayyan 0-0 at the Fatorda Stadium in Goa on Wednesday night.

The draw brought hope of Indian teams able to match stronger sides but as seen in the past consistency can be a bugbear, be it a club or the national team.

In September 2019 when India held the Asian Champions Qatar in an away game, the result was touted as the ‘sleeping giants’ waking up. Draws against Afghanistan and Bangladesh brought an end to the chatter. As gutsy as that night in Qatar was, it was another one-off performance followed by disappointing results.

During the tryst last night with their Qatari counterparts though, FC Goa was brave.

Goa’s style of play in the Indian Super League this season, as well as their previous two seasons has been fastened to the belief that playing with the ball, coupled with some strong central defenders taking charge at the back, is the way to move forward. It has helped them reach the AFC Champions League and maintain their inroads into the ISL playoffs despite losing some key players.

They didn’t forget to play the same way, despite a clear raise in quality of the opposition.

Midfield battle

Nothing signified this more than fielding home players Brandon Fernandes and Glan Martins in the middle of the park, just ahead of captain Edu Bedia, in a three-man midfield. Having to play deep in the pocket for most of the game, both midfielders, recently rewarded with long-term deals by Goa, were calm in the face of being pressed by opposition players. They always found a way out of trouble in the midfield.

Martins in particular always seemed to be in the best positions and was able to regularly nab an interception or two, especially right outside his own team’s box. Goa ended the game with a total of 16 interceptions, to Al Rayyan’s 9. FC Goa’s midfield was not something that was bypassed when in possession of the ball, but rather an instrument used to hold onto possession – a stark difference in how the national team played in 2019 and FC Goa played yesterday.

A foreign-led defence

One of the major decisions that FC Goa coach Juan Ferrando had to take was to omit ISL’s top goals scorer Igor Angulo from his team. The decision was made keeping in mind that Goa needed two foreign centre-backs who could play with the ball.

Both James Donachie and Ivan Gonzales were crucial in not just snuffing out any chances but also passing the ball rather than clearing it out and giving possession away. It led to Goa only marginally losing the possession battle, making over 400 passes in 90 minutes and doing so at an accuracy rate above 80%. Choosing both of them rather than dropping one and picking Angulo might have helped with the goals, but it means that Goa now might have a fighting chance towards the end of most games.

Striking issues

Despite Goa’s Indian-centric midfield exceeding expectations, not enough chances were created. The home team managed a mere three shots throughout the game, one of which hit the target. For Ferrando, the missing chances in attack was the issue that needed to be sorted for their next game, an encounter against UAE’s Al Wahad on April 17.

“From a coach’s point of view, we need to grow in some details and tactics. We need to improve in certain aspects of the attack because this is the AFC Champions League and it is necessary to prepare and compete in every aspect.” He then continued and said, “The first game went well, the new target for Saturday is to further improve in attack. We have to go step by step and continue improving. This is not our limit and we have to improve more.”

Looking forward

In a tournament where a team has to play every three days, recovery and maintaining the same levels of play become crucial. The weather also becomes a major factor, as Al Rayyan coach Laurent Blanc made clear after his team’s draw last night.

“The weather and humidity had the biggest impact on Al Rayyan’s level of performance during the Goa match. We did not take advantage of the opportunities we got and failing to register a goal at the beginning of the match made the team’s task further difficult and gave confidence to the Goa team, who played in a tight defensive manner,” said Blanc in the post-match press conference.

Goa’s next opponents Al Wahad may have made their way into the AFC Champions League through the playoffs, but have been regulars at this level and provide yet another test to a Goan team that will have to show the same level of concentration that was required to keep the Qatar Super League club at bay.

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