Goa: FC Goa host former champions Chennaiyin FC in the first leg of the second semi-final of the Indian Super League (ISL) at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Saturday. It is expected to be a tense battle between the two most consistent sides of the 2017-18 season.
There isn't much to choose between the two sides as Chennaiyin finished second behind leaders Bengaluru FC, while Goa were placed third on the league table. Also, the fact that there has never been a goalless draw whenever these two sides have faced each other makes the tie even more intriguing.
This is that one clash that has always produced fireworks in the past. This fixture until last year was even more interesting as football icons Zico and Marco Materazzi were at the helm of both the clubs respectively. In the overall head-to-head, Chennaiyin lead 5-4 and the match on Saturday promises plenty of goals in an entertaining ride for fans for the whole of 90 minutes.
After having finished last and second last in the previous season, Goa and Chennaiyin have shown totally different styles of play under new managers Sergio Lobera and John Gregory respectively. Life without Zico and Materazzi has been great for both the clubs with Goa having played some attractive football throughout the tournament and having 42 goals — the most by any team so far this year. Chennaiyin have been less prolific in terms of goals but have been a strong defensive side.
Goa have scored at a rate of 2.33 goals per match to become the league’s best attacking side. The Gaurs have surpassed last season's best tally of 27 goals in 14 matches (Delhi Dynamos).
Much of the credit for Goa's performance goes to coach Lobera, a former La Masia trainer, who is also a firm believer of Barcelona’s Tiki-Taka ideology. The Spaniard has built a strong unit around compatriots Ferran Corominas and Manuel Lanzarote. Hence, it’s not a surprise that Goa managed to net 22 goals in the first nine matches and then 12 in the last three to cement their place in the last=four of the competition.
The Catalan strike pair of Corominas and Lanzarote has lived up to the hype and has been the source of goals for the Goan outfit. While Coro leads with 18 goals, Lanzarote has managed to get the ball to back of the net on 12 occasions.
But ahead of the semi-final, Lobera doesn’t want to put unwanted pressure on his star players. “I don’t think any two players in this league can dictate the fortunes of an entire team. There are always players whose names are likely to show up on the scoresheet and it is good they are capable of that, but it’s always a result of the collective effort,” said the 41-year-old coach.
In the midfield, the coach has entrusted 22-year-old Hugo Boumous alongside Pranoy Halder to maintain the perfect combination of attack and defence.
But having made it to the semi-finals purely on the basis of their attacking prowess, Goa’s defence is a matter of concern for Lobera as they have conceded 28 goals, the highest number of goals conceded among the top-six teams in the league. The team’s poor defensive record nearly cost them a place in the playoffs but Goa managed to hold their nerves and concede just one goal in their last three matches.
Another worrying point for Lobera is that they have to field under-fire goalkeeper Laxmikant Kattimani despite his disastrous form as Naveen Kumar is suspended. Kattimani hasn’t been able to keep a clean sheet in his last 15 games whereas Kumar has only conceded five goals in as many matches.
This would surely encourage Gregory’s Chennaiyin to aim for an away goal at the Fatorda Stadium on Saturday. The Super Machans haven’t been the best when it comes to attacking but have some of the best in the business at the back.
Meanwhile, Chennaiyin have had a very reliable defence this season, something the former Premier League manager would be extremely proud of. He has developed a well-oiled centre-back pairing in the Portuguese-speaking duo of Henrique Sereno and Mailson Alves. The understanding shared by the experienced duo has has benefitted Chennaiyin immensely.
Fullbacks Inigo Calderon and Indian youngster Jerry Lalrinzuala too have impressed many as they often bomb forward to join the attack. “Three foreign boys in our defence have been the most consistent players this season,” said Gregory.
“Jerry, our left back, has impressed this season. He has really enjoyed himself this season and playing with the foreign players has clearly helped him. We have built our team around these foreigners and hopefully we will keep three more clean sheets,” he added.
On Saturday, the coach will aim to deploy midfielders Dhanpal Ganesh and Bikramjit Singh to stop all attacks from the middle. Raphael Augusto is likely to play a free role with Francis Fernandes in support. But the onus will be on Jeje Lalpekhlua as the Mizoram striker will hope to regain lost form and end his five-match goal drought.
The ISL has introduced the ‘away goal’ rule for the playoffs, something that the former Aston Villa manager is a fan of.
"When I was playing, it was decided by a toss of a coin. So things have progressed a bit from our days. So yeah, I'm a fan of the away goal rule before penalties; but then, of course, if it goes to penalties, I'm a fan of that too. There have been some amazing outcomes from the penalty shoot-outs," said Gregory.
"It's very important if you get an away goal as it gives you a big advantage. You need to be aware of the consequences. If you win 2-1, it's a huge advantage for you. We've had some of our best performances this season and we're hoping we are going to have another one tomorrow (Saturday)," he added.
Chennaiyin may not have prolific goal-scorers like their opponents but it’s the team’s lack of reliance on individuals that gives them a slight advantage.
"We haven't relied on one individual. We're not as prolific as FC Goa, but at the same time, we are defensively stronger than Goa. It wasn't an accident that we finished second in the league and that we won away from home in the manner we did in Bengaluru, Goa, Pune and as well as Jamshedpur this year,” said the 63-year-old coach.
Goa and Chennaiyin have faced each other on two occasions in the league stage, where Lobera’s side won 3-2 in Chennai, while the Gregory-led team eked out a narrow 1-0 win in Goa in February.
The semi-final clash promises to be a tight encounter between two contrasting ideologies. Goa rely on an attractive and direct brand of football, while Chennaiyin prefer to shut out opponents and break forward.
It will be interesting to see if Goa can manage to penetrate Chennaiyin’s solid back four and at same time contain Jeje and Co from adding more misery to The Gaurs’ defensive woes. For Chennaiyin, their collective approach could make the difference at the end of 90 minutes.
Updated Date: Mar 10, 2018 12:59 PM