AFC Champions League 2021: FC Goa and Juan Ferrando gear up for toughest test
FC Goa were one of the most impressive sides in the recently-concluded ISL but the AFC Champions League where the Asian elites play is sure to pose tougher challenges.
Indian football is set for a historic night on Wednesday as FC Goa gear up to take on Qatar's Al-Rayyan SC in the AFC Champions League. Indian clubs have never been part of the group stages of Asia's premier club competition so far.
The Gaurs last year became the first Indian club to qualify for the Champions League group stage after winning the 2019-20 Indian Super League (ISL) league stage.
As the Champions League expanded from 32 to 40 clubs from 2021, the Asian Football Confederation awarded India a confirmed spot in the group stage as the country occupied the eighth spot in the West Zone in 2019. The West and East Zones associations ranked seventh to 10th were given one direct slot in the group stage.
The I-League champions used to be given the Champions League preliminary/play-off rounds spot earlier but the group stage spot went to ISL as the league was recognised as the top-tier in 2019.
Goa coach Juan Ferrando is well aware of the importance of the occasion. Speaking to the-aiff.com about India's debut in the group stage, he said, "This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many. These are the kinds of things you start playing football for. We are all very enthusiastic about it and hope to make the country proud.
“It’s a huge one. Not only for FC Goa but also for the entire nation. This is an opportunity for our players to play against some of the biggest names in Asia.”
Goa are placed in Group E which consists of three other teams from Qatar, Iran, and UAE respectively. All the matches will be played in Goa and while the team has home advantage, the games will be played behind closed doors.
Al-Rayyan SC (matches on 14 and 26 April)
They finished third in the Qatar Stars League 2020-21 season and have eight domestic league titles to their name. They are coached by former Manchester United defender and former PSG manager Laurent Blanc.
Al-Rayyan got knocked out in the play-off round in the 2020 edition of the Champions League after losing to Iran's Esteghlal Tehran FC.
Al Wahda FC (matches on 17 and 29 April)
The Emirati club has won the top division UAE Pro League four times and is currently eighth in the table.
Al Wahda were part of Group A in the competition last season but were forced to withdraw after a COVID-19 breakout in their squad.
Persepolis FC (matches on 20 and 23 April)
The biggest club in the group, Persepolis, has won their national top division league 13 times and once again sits at the top of the 16-team Persian Gulf Pro League with 20 matches played.
Persepolis are yet to win the continental competition but were runners-up in the 2018 and 2020 edition.
Expectations from Goa
Goa had a cruel exit from the ISL 2020-21 after losing in a penalty shootout in the semi-finals to the eventual champions Mumbai City FC. Ferrando has only been with the club for one season but the Gaurs were one of the most eye-pleasing sides in the ISL. They scored 33 goals, the second-highest in the league, playing an imposing possession-based football.
The continental journey, however, is expected to be a lot different than their domestic campaign. Their opponents come from countries that have been part of the FIFA World Cup or are about to be. They come from leagues that are more expansive and robust.
“It’s very difficult. We have watched some games, in our case in Group E (Persepolis FC, Al Rayyan, and Al Wahda), the level is so high. The intensity in their games is totally different from the ISL but it’s necessary to control minute-by-minute for 90 minutes. These games will be high intensity and it’s very important to be ready," Ferrando said in one of his media interactions ahead of his team's debut in the Champions League.
While Goa dominated the proceedings in most of their matches in ISL and were unbeaten in their last 15 matches, the Champions League will prove to be a completely different experience. Against physically and technically stronger players, it will be an almost impossible task for Ferrando and Co to implement their regular playing style. We may see them playing without the ball for a long time in their matches.
The inexperienced Indian club is the weakest side in Group E but the upcoming campaign is not really about the results. It's a big step forward and the focus should be on learning from the elite stage.
FC Goa squad
What makes the Champions League a much tougher proposition for Goa is the AFC's 3+1 foreign player rule (1 Asian player). Unlike ISL where teams are allowed to play five foreign players, in the Champions League, clubs can only field three foreigners and one player from the AFC member nation.
This forced Ferrando to exclude ISL 202-21 Golden Boot winner Igor Angulo and highest assist maker Alberto Noguera. The four foreigners to make the cut are Ivan Gonzalez, James Donachie, Jorge Ortiz, and skipper Edu Bedia.
This provides the opportunity for an extra Indian player to gain valuable playing time but also puts the domestic contingent under more pressure to perform.
Goalkeepers: Mohammad Nawaz, Naveen Kumar, Shubham Dhas, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem
Defenders: Sanson Pereira, Seriton Fernandes, Leander D'Cunha, Iván Gonzalez (Spain), Mohamed Ali, James Donachie (Australia), Aibanbha Dohling, Saviour Gama, Adil Khan
Midfielders: Edu Bedia (Spain), Glan Martins, Princeton Rebello, Brandon Fernandes, Phrangki Buam, Redeem Tlang, Makan Winkle Chothe, Alexander Romario Jesuraj, Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Romeo Fernandes
Forwards: Jorge Ortiz (Spain), Devendra Murgaonkar, Ishan Pandita
The matches will be broadcast on Star Sports 3 and Disney+ Hotstar.
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