The smile was finally back on Zico’s face. At last, he saw the performance and result that his FC Goa side has failed to produce consistently this season. Only the second win of the campaign in eight matches. Whisper it but there was a wave of optimism around the Goa camp after the match.
"We played this game like our life depended on it. This is our life!” remarked Zico after the 1-0 away win over FC Pune City on Thursday. It was a result that exorcised the demons of past and present. The victory will provide relief to the crisis-ridden team in the short term. For Zico, a winless record against his opposite number Antonio Lopez Habas was finally taken care of too. In their past five meetings, the Spanish coach had won three and drawn two.
The third of those wins came earlier this season when Goa was stunned by a 90th minute-winning goal by Pune. However, scores were settled at the Balewadi Complex. Despite being the host, Pune remained second-best throughout as Goa produced a remarkably polished display. There have not been many moments when we have been able to say that about Zico’s team this season.
On Thursday, though, Goa deserved all the plaudits it received. Zico made four changes to the side that had succumbed to a 0-2 defeat against Delhi Dynamos. The crucial changes were made at the back as Gregory Arnolin and Rafael Dumas came in the three-man defence. Sanjay Balmuchu, who had been part of the backline on Sunday, was pushed up to his natural role in midfield.
Furthermore, Laxmikant Kattimani found his way back into the team at the expense of first-choice goalie Subhasish Roy Chowdhury.
But it was the coordination between Arnolin, Dumas and Luciano Sabrosa that made the difference. Goa’s defence hardly allowed Pune space to engineer breakthroughs. As a result, the hosts were reduced to snapping at half-chances. This season has seen Goa falter to keep its defence tight in almost every game. It must have been a pleasing feeling for Zico to see the defence function as desired.
Thursday’s match was between a side that had conceded the most number of goals in the tournament (Goa, 11) and a team that was still waiting for its first clean sheet (Pune). The hosts' record continued thanks to a wonderfully taken free-kick by Rafael Coelho Luiz. The Brazilian struck home from 20 yards to break the deadlock in the first half, wonderfully lifting the ball over the wall and beating the flailing goalkeeper. The celebrations that followed demonstrated the significance of the goal for Goa.
In fact, the visitors should have hit the net more than once. One chance particularly stood out. Jofre Mateu fluffed a big opportunity in the second half when he skied the ball from about 10 yards with only the goalie to beat. Such profligacy has been a hallmark of Goa’s displays this season. Although Jofre shone in a central role as he was able to find more space and link up with his teammates, his missed effort blemished his performance.
It is a problem that does worry Zico. "I think our players are suffering from anxiety. I think they are under pressure to score and get the results for us. They have been reckless and at times impatient in front of goal. But the goal-keeping standards are high too. It's a little bit of both. Who knows now in the second phase all the balls end up going in."
Goa will need that to happen if it has to repeat its 2014 heroics. In the inaugural edition of the ISL, Zico’s team had only five points from the first seven games. This time around, Goa had a point less at the midway stage. Thursday’s win, though, has lifted them off the bottom spot; Pune are only a point behind and have a game in hand.
The 2014 comeback was built on strong home form which saw Goa dominate visiting sides in Fatorda. The performances this term have been a far cry from the inaugural campaign as both of their wins have been achieved on the travels. A swift turnaround is necessary since four of Goa’s remaining six matches are in Fatorda. Home support could be a factor but only if Zico is able to ensure that Thursday’s win marked the start of a turnaround.
"First of all, I think we started building our team a bit late, almost at the deadline, after the other teams. Most of our players weren't physically well," said the Brazilian manager recently when asked to analyse what has gone wrong for Goa this term. But the memories of 2014 will make him believe that his side can once again surprise observers and oppositions alike. The return of both Romeo Fernandes and Mandar Rao Dessai to the starting lineup suggests that Zico believes attack is the answer. If the three-man backline can continue to be a reliable unit, the Brazilian should be able to afford the attacking luxury that those two wide men are. For now, the dream is alive.