Fragility, and not fluidity, is fast becoming the overarching trait that defines manager Zico’s FC Goa.
This goes back to the last season of the Indian Super League (ISL) in which Goa would thump Mumbai City FC by a record seven-goal margin, yet also suffer two 0-4 meltdowns against Atletico De Kolkata and Chennaiyin FC, in addition to throwing away a last-minute lead in the final at home.
Dying moments of that final would’ve replayed in the minds of the Goan supporters on Saturday night, when FC Pune City's forward Momar Ndoye breezed past Lucio, the home team’s marquee defender, and curled in a 90th-minute winner that gave goalkeeper Laxmikant Kattimani no chance of saving. It meant another disjoint display by Goa ended in another defeat.
FC Pune City had won only once in 14 away matches heading into this fixture and that was back in 2014 during the inaugural season. The visitors carried mental baggage of their own, even with a revamped squad.
However, there’s a growing belief in Goa’s opponents that if you can stop Zico’s men from scoring, you will, sooner or later, be gifted clear-cut openings to take full advantage of.
This stems from a brittle defence that is often exposed due to a largely unwavering philosophy to attack. “The day I change my philosophy, I will stop coaching,” Zico had declared prior to the fixture against Pune. “We will attack, we will go forward and look to score goals and win the game.”
The Brazilian was simply responding to a suggestion that it might be wiser to take precautions in the absence of key players such as Gregory Arnolin and Luciano Sabrosa, two of Goa’s main centre-backs.
True to his words though, Zico chucked out Richarlyson, a defensive midfielder, and drafted in forward Reinaldo, the club’s topscorer last year. It was the only change to the starting XI that went down tamely away to NorthEast United FC (NEUFC) — an opening fixture that offered glimpses of Goa’s attacking potential but showcased in full the team’s defensive vulnerability.
On that day, Goa had attempted 13 shots on goal compared to NEUFC’s seven but conceded twice and scored none. Against Pune, those figures were an even wider 17-6 in favour of Zico’s men. Yet again, they would concede twice and score only once — which too was heavily aided by an individual mistake.
The Brazilian manager had a familiar moan after the match — “we created many chances but we were able to convert just once”— and to a certain extent, it’s hard not to sympathise with him. Two gilt-edged chances fell to Romeo Fernandes, a second-half substitute who brought with him greater attacking emphasis, but the Indian winger shot one straight at the goalkeeper and skied the other high and wide.
However, citing the creation of “many chances” is misleading. In reality, it’s the overall quality of these chances that is hurting Goa the most. Fernandes’ misses aside, there wasn’t another clear opportunity for the home side. An acrobatic volley from Trindade Goncalves was an improbable attempt; so were the shots fired in by Rafael Coelho and Sahil Tavora. Coelho’s free kick and Lucio’s header were meek tries as well. All of these were half-chances that may, rather than should, have turned into a goal.
On the other hand, Pune profited twice from a handful of their own opportunities. Arata Izumi converted a generous rebound into an open goal, while Ndoye found himself in space and one-on-one with Lucio. All of Pune’s six shots were on target and, furthermore, they were unlucky not to have at least one, if not two, penalties (though Goa should’ve had one of their own too).
At NEUFC, a blunder by Kattimani had led to the first concession while the second came against the run of play; Goa’s defences carved upon by one delicious pass. Go further back to the final of ISL 2 and of the three goals let in by Zico’s men, one was via a penalty, another a ‘keeping blunder while the third was a naively defended goal at a time when scores were level and extra time was a minute away.
It’s a worrying trend for Zico. Opponents, who acknowledge Goa’s attacking potential, are content to sit back and then wait for the right opportunities to come by (though Pune were adventurous in patches).
Owing to injuries in a revamped FC Goa squad, a new-look team is taking longer to gel — which means Goa must learn how to eke out points on the tougher days or, at the very least, not throw points away.