FC Goa's Indian Super League (ISL) 2016 season opener was against NorthEast United FC, and Laxmikant Kattimani had a match to forget that time. It was the Goan goalkeeper's blunder that allowed NEUFC to open the scoring, and that set the tone for what has been a disastrous campaign for last year's beaten finalists. Kattimani was also in goal during that final, a match where Chennaiyin sneaked through at the death following another goalkeeping error. He had acquired a reputation of being an unreliable custodian, and lost his place in the side to Subhasish Roy Chowdhury.
However, Kattimani fought his way back into the team. Having earned his spot again, the 27-year-old was handed the captain's armband on Friday. Such was the spate of injuries and suspensions which circled Goa, there were only two outfield players on the bench and the same number of 'keepers. No less than nine Indians were a part of the starting XI.
Goa still awaited their first points at home this season. With five games to go, Zico's men had to win every remaining game. The start, though, was not promising. NEUFC laid siege to their goal; chance after chance arrived, and one presumed it was only a matter of time before the first goal would be scored. But Kattimani kept the scores intact. He kept Goa in the game. There was still some reluctance within him when the opportunity arrived to catch the ball — he pushed uncertainly on occasions — but there was little to suggest that NEUFC were going to strike the net.
One particular save stood out, when following a corner, Mailson Alves' effort from about five yards was delightfully palmed away by Kattimani. It should have been a goal, but the goalie ensured Goa did not have to endure a horror start.
The first-half rearguard effort, however, gave way to a North East United goal minutes into the second period. Seityasen Singh's deflected shot bamboozled Kattimani and the visiting side went ahead. For a team which was low on confidence, the goal must have hurt Goa's morale badly.
But the response was a huge surprise. Until Goa conceded, they looked like a team in decline, lurching from one poor result to another. But Romeo Fernandes and Robin Singh rose to the occasion.
Romeo first went deftly past a defender to find himself free in the box. The unmarked Robin Singh checked his run and flicked the ball home from the outside of his left boot. It was against the run of play, but the kind of break Goa desperately sought.
The defeat against Kerala Blasters in the previous match had shown an ill-tempered side which finished with nine men. It was a performance at odds with Zico's philosophy as his team interrupted play through fouls and time-wasting. But it came to no good.
In the lead up to this match, assistant coach Fernando Vannucci addressed those concerns. "Zico and FC Goa's philosophy has always been the same. That is attacking. But we have changed players this season, so we have played differently. Last game against Kerala was very tough for us as we had to go in with a depleted side due to injury," he explained.
The same case presented on Friday night as well. A lack of quality ensured Goa remained second best for vast periods of the match. The challenge was skewed even further when Sahil Tavora was sent off for a silly foul, his second bookable offence.
Discipline is often an issue in teams which fail to assert themselves on the pitch. But despite the hardships, Goa fought back. With the clock running down, NEUFC pushed forward in search of a winner. After all, the visitors too had lost three matches on the bounce, all of them at home. NEUFC also needed a positive result badly.
However, it was the combination of Romeo and Robin once again which brought joy to FC Goa. Four minutes had been added on and the final whistle was just seconds away. Robin found himself in space in the opposition half and waited for Romeo to make the run. At the precise moment, the ball was released and collected by the midfielder through on goal. Faced with a one-on-one situation, Romeo rounded NEUFC goalkeeper Subrata Paul and finished with a calm disposition. Jubilant scenes, as one would expect, followed.
With the three points against NEUFC, Goa now have 10 from as many games. The task ahead remains as challenging as it was before Friday's match. But the nature of the win would instill belief within the Goa squad. A renewed wave of trust and support may arise. There are issues within the side and it does seem a tougher task without the availability of key players.
Assistant coach Vannucci gave a glimpse of the underlying belief among the players. "I would like to invite all FC Goa fans to the stadium and they are going to witness a team that is going to fight till the end," he said.
And so it did. Next up will be Mumbai City FC at home on Wednesday.