Margao: Not many would have expected the first leg of the semi-final between FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC to end in a draw. Not because this particular tie has always produced a flurry of goals, but has also had a winner at the end of 90 minutes.
However, on Saturday, the fans witnessed the first-ever draw between the two sides. On another day, either side could have managed to eke out a victory.
It turned out to be a surprise result for many as in each of the previous meetings between the two sides, Zico, the iconic figure of the Brazilian national team in the early 1980s, and Marco Materazzi, a World Cup winner with Italy, saw their respective sides play thrilling contests in the past.
Although things were a bit different on Saturday as two experienced tacticians Sergio Lobera (Goa) and John Gregory (Chennaiyin) stood on the touchline for their respective teams at the Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Sadium.
In a battle of contrasting philosophies, it was Gregory’s Chennaiyin FC who have a slight edge with the all-important away goal. While Goa dominated the proceeding in terms of possession and creativity, Chennaiyin responded with quick one-twos in the early stages of the game. In what was a nervous start to the game by both the sides, the opening 15 minutes saw Chennaiyin make quick movements in the midfield as Goa struggled to get into the rhythm.
Gregory’s side pressed Goa by closing down their attackers, who have a knack for scoring early goals in the season. Despite the pressure, Ferran Corominas and Manuel Lanzarote found spaces upfront as midfielder Pronay Halder stayed back and dictated the tempo of the game. Still, there were no real opportunities for either side until the half-hour mark.
After failing to find the target, Goa started finding different ways to penetrate the resolute Chennaiyin defence who had conceded the fewest number of goals in this edition of the Indian Super League. Within minutes, there were minor tweaks as Lobera’s men stayed wide to stretch their opponent’s back four but there was no real cutting edge to their attacking play.
By this time, Goa knew they had to move the ball a lot more quickly to break down the visitors’ disciplined defence. Chennaiyin’s centre-back pair Henrique Sereno and Mailson Alves maintained the backline as full backs Jerry Lalrinzuala and Inigo Calderon often surged ahead to help their attackers.
The Gaurs continued to see more of the ball but it was evident that they were getting frustrated with lack of open spaces in the middle. Even coach Lobera was constantly waving at Halder, asking him to act as an extra man whenever the hosts had the possession.
As the game progressed, the fans witnessed a sudden surge of pace on the left by Goan winger Mandar Rao Dessai, who was the only threat for Chennaiyin’s defence. The runs and pace on the left often troubled Lalrinzuala as Dessai was able to cut inside and spray passes to Coro and Lanza.
Gregory’s defensive 4-4-2 set-up had worked wonders for him in the first quarter of the game. They had stifled the Goan attack and forced the angry-looking Lobera to have a quick half-time pep talk in the dressing room.
There was a heart-in-mouth situation for Goa after the restart. Under-fire goalkeeper Laxmikant Kattimani was the unlikely saviour for Goa after pulling off two fine saves to deny Jeje Lalpekhlua and Raphael Augusto. Chennaiyin’s collective approach nearly paid off. The Super Machans like to break forward at regular intervals and should have made the most of the two chances.
“We had clear one-on-one opportunities and to be fair to (Laxmikant) Kattimani, he made some very good saves and his team should thank him very much for the saves that he made. He certainly kept the tie alive right up till we managed to get a goal,” said Gregory.
It was a treat to watch Chennaiyin’s collective approach in the game whereas Goa were heavily reliant on Coro and Lanza once again. There was a sense of optimism in the Chennaiyin dugout. Jeje and Gregory Nelson posed a threat to the off-colour Goan defence. The only way to combat Goa's pace was to break forward collectively.
However, just when Chennaiyin were starting to tick all the boxes, the moment of joy finally arrived for the home team. Rao Dessai won the ball from right-back Inigo Calderon and sent a low cross to Coro inside the box. The league’s top scorer with 18 goals created space to hit a diving effort but Karanjit Singh’s save wasn’t enough as Lanzarote scored on the rebound. The noise inside the stadium was deafening.
For all of Chennaiyin’s brilliance, Goa had made their mark in the crucial home tie. It was a rare blip from the visitors’ defence to concede a scrappy goal on 64 minutes. The hosts gave Chennaiyin a taste of their own medicine with a quick break.
Despite conceding the goal, Gregory’s side was patient enough to keep the possession. For which, they were rewarded with equaliser in the 71st minute, after a patient build-up from the midfield that saw Nelson feed substitute Anirudh Thapa, who stayed calm as defenders converged on him to slot home between goalkeeper Kattimani’s legs.
There was pindrop silence inside the Fatorda Stadium as Chennaiyin had earned the all-important away goal.
This wasn’t the first time that Chennaiyin have given a good account of themselves when things are not going right for the Super Machans. In 10 of their 19 matches so far, Gregory’s men have mounted a comeback from a goal down. They have scored 19 out of their 25 goals in the second half.
There were flashes of brilliance from Jeje, who was presented the opportunity to end his five-match goal drought twice in the game but the Mizoram striker seemed off-colour on the night.
After a spell of madness in Goa, the game had calmed down. Lobera soon asked right-back Seriton Fernandes to stay back as it was Chennaiyin who stayed wide. This was a clear indication that Goa were susceptive to concede another goal.
Since then, the game took an ugly turn, as both the teams were desperate to score and also committed unnecessary fouls while defending. Goa’s attacking set-up did allow them to create more but it was Chennaiyin’s unwavering defence that earned all the plaudits.
It was an end-to-end encounter, if not a thriller. After the result, Goa coach Lobera said that his side wouldn’t have problems in the return fixture in Chennai. “I think the result is yet to be decided. From what we have here, for us to go through, we need to score there. It was a little difficult to get a result against a team that is as well organised and defensively strong as they were today (Saturday). But having said that, for us, it's not such an obstacle to go there and try and score a goal,” he said.
The Goan midfield missed the presence of Hugo Boumous, who was out of the tie due to injury. Lobera believes that his side can outscore their opponent just like they did during the league stage.
“We were capable of doing that there but right now the circumstances need to serve us as a form of a motivation. Keeping in mind what happened in the past has nothing to do with how it will be in the next couple of day's time (Tuesday). We have to prepare well, recover the players as quickly as possible and go there and try to win,” the former Barcelona C coach said.
Meanwhile, Chennaiyin coach Gregory admitted that Goa were superior in terms of creativity. “We are just not as creative as Goa. Our players work in a good system where they work very hard for each other and we get the best out of each player in whatever positions they play.
"We are still rebuilding our team. We play in a slightly different way than Goa do, but nevertheless, we make it difficult for Goa to play against us. My team has the attitude to keep going until it's over. We have a never-say-die-attitude," he concluded.
Chennayin have the edge in their semi-final and it's all to play for in the second leg that takes place on Tuesday in Chennai.
Updated Date: Mar 11, 2018 15:36 PM