The third season of the Indian Super League (ISL) is all but over for FC Goa. For the first time in three years, barring a miracle of miracles, manager Zico’s men will miss out on a semifinal berth. In fact, Goa will do really well to avoid the wooden spoon this season, such has been the untidy, erratic and shambolic nature of the team’s ISL 2016 campaign.
A last-gasp defeat to Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) at home was no different. And its final scenes, as is now almost customary in matches involving Goa, were surreal and chaotic.
Stephen Pearson netted a stoppage-time winner following a four-against-one counter attack. Four ATK players raced towards goal, with the freedom of Fatorda, while Richarlyson was the only player in position to defend for a home team desperate to find a winner themselves. A freeze frame leading up to that goal would make for an iconic ISL image. If there were ever moments to sum up Goa’s messy season, these were it.
This wasn’t so much bravery as it was suicidal naivety. “In the second half, we drew the game and when we needed organisation, we lost our calm,” lamented Zico after the game. Even in situations when goalkeepers are sent forward in desperation (in this case, Goa hadn’t done so) rarely do teams get hit on a four-on-one counter. A lack of organisation was evident.
“This is the first team I have managed which is so disorganised,” claimed the Brazilian who has taken charge of 10 teams in a 17-year managerial career, “I felt disrespected.”
Zico’s own choices left a lot to be desired. His starting XI was clearly short on a centre forward. Goa’s two men upfront were Rafael Coelho, who prefers to roam deep, and Joffre Mateu, a playmaking number 10. These are two players capable of pulling the strings for Goa but not ones who could provide a constant threat inside the box — which was the need of the hour.
In contrast, ATK had Juan Belencoso deployed ahead of Helder Postiga — two players capable of playing as traditional forwards and who instinctively move forward into scoring positions.
This proved to be decisive in the first half as Goa’s attacks repeatedly petered out in the final third and resulted only in shots from range, while the visitors found men in the box. Inside the first five minutes, Pearson and Javi Lara, ATK’s midfielders, had glorious chances to open the scoring from inside the box. Eventually, Belencoso did via a header from close range.
Without a focal point upfront, the threat of Goa’s wingers Romeo Fernandes and Mandar Rao Dessai was diminished as well. Fernandes, aware of a lack of Goan shirt in the box, would cut inside in the hope of attacking through the centre but his moves became too predictable.
A 0-1 half-time score line flattered Goa, who were easily second-best and lucky not to concede more goals. Goalkeeper Laxmikant Kattimani’s heroics kept the home side in the game. Goa failed to register a shot on target in the first half, in comparison to ATK’s five and saw only 42 percent of the possession. The visitors were dominant and it was clear as to why.
Zico finally changed things midway through the second half. It was an oddly delayed decision to change a system that hadn’t been working from minute one. Even in the second half, for all of Goa’s improved attacking, the closest the home side came to scoring was when ATK left-back Robert Lalthlamuana’s mishit clearance hit the post of his own goal.
Robin Singh was introduced into the contest, along with Raju Gaikwad. Goa switched to three at the back in a 3-5-2 system with Coelho and Singh providing threat closer to the goal. Few minutes later, Julio Cesar, another forward, would be sent on. In a span of eight minutes, two forwards replaced a central midfielder and a full-back. Handbrakes were taken off.
Goa began to threaten as ATK hung on. With Singh now keeping the ATK defenders occupied, Fernandes found space in the centre but shot narrowly wide. Singh himself headed a chance straight to the goalkeeper, while Coelho blazed wildly over the bar from close range. A goal was imminent and it came through Dessai’s stinging low shot from outside the box.
At the time, it was a lifeline. Goa pushed further forward in search of a victory that had looked unlikely all night long. However, the changes had arrived too late. Goa’s attacking, now with the right options on the field, had become more frantic than measured. “Everyone wanted to be the hero today,” Zico moaned after the match, pointing to the positional chaos at the end.
As a result, ATK had a merry time on the counter. The away side should’ve sealed Goa’s fate earlier than they eventually did through Pearson. Several attacks, with numerical superiority, were wasted prior to the winner in the dying stages. On the balance of play, ATK deserved the victory for a thoroughly professional away display.
For Goa, again, a spirited fightback did not prove to be enough. Once again, Zico’s choices were questionable. Once again, the Brazilian’s team disintegrated and conceded a late winner (Momar Ndoye, CK Vineeth, Marcelinho, sort of, and now Pearson). Once again, order gave way to chaos on the pitch. It’s been the story of their season—a surprisingly disastrous one.