Entering unchartered territory on the back of their ISL success last season, FC Goa will be up against Al-Rayyan, Persepolis, and Al Wahda during the AFC Champions League group stage.
After almost seven years of existence, four semi-final appearances and two summit clashes in the Indian Super League (ISL), FC Goa will forge history on Wednesday when they make their debut in the prestigious AFC Champions League group stage against Qatar’s Al-Rayyan SC at The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatorda.
Entering unchartered territory on the back of their ISL League Winners Shield last season, the Gaurs will be up against three teams in Group E who all hail from countries that are either regulars or are about to participate in the FIFA World Cup. Apart from Al-Rayyan SC, last year’s runners-up Persepolis FC (Iran) and Al Wahda FC (UAE) are both tough matchups for the Juan Ferrando-led side.
“It’s an important moment for the club, for Indian football as a whole. We are working hard. We know all about our opponents and their level. These matches are going to be of high intensity, so it’s important to be prepared — both physically and psychologically,” FC Goa head coach Ferrando told indianexpress.com.
“After the conclusion of the Indian Super League, our entire focus shifted to the AFC Champions League. We are on our way to create history by becoming the first Indian club to compete in a tournament of such a high calibre and high level. We are very excited and we will try our best to fly the Indian flag high,” he continued.
Despite being on a 15-match unbeaten streak, Ferrando understands that the AFC Champions League is a different challenge. Aware of the risks of continuing their free-flowing possession-based style of play in such an elite competition, the Barcelona-born tactician took the tough call of dropping top-scorer Igor Angulo and key playmaker Alberto Noguera from the squad in order to prioritise his defence in line with the AFC’s 3+1 foreigner rule. In the end, Ferrando opted to go with defenders Ivan Gonzalez and James Donachie, club captain and midfield stalwart Edu Bedia, and versatile forward Jorge Ortiz for the burdensome group stage.
Because of such a restriction, the domestic contingent now face a double-edged sword. While the experience of playing against high-profile teams will certainly prove to be invaluable, there’s added pressure on the likes of midfielders Brandon Fernandes, Glan Martins and Amarjit Singh, wingers Alexander Romario Jesuraj and Redeem Tlang, and promising forward Ishan Pandita to perform.
When asked about the possibility of a “false nine” system in the absence of Golden Boot winner Angulo, he said, “We will use every trick in the book to sway the odds in our favour. However, what those tricks will be — well, they will remain a secret.”
The 32-year-old Bedia, who had stints in the La Liga before joining FC Goa in 2017, knows a thing or two about bucking the odds and coming out on top.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, I have played in a number of matches throughout my career in teams which you can say to be ‘inferior’ and that includes games in the UEFA Europa League,” said Bedia in a recent online interaction. “So obviously, all that experience counts towards understanding how difficult the matches are going to be when you have to run the yards without having much of the ball.”
“That’s something we are trying to explain to the Indian players as well.”
“Al Rayyan and Persepolis are among the top-10 teams in Asia. It will be very demanding but we will try to be competitive and make it difficult for them,” Bedia told the website on the eve of FC Goa’s campaign opener. “After a brilliant season in the ISL, now comes the ACL, which will have six very difficult games in which we have to be fully focused. This will also help us to learn and grow as a team.”
Apart from the tough prospect of facing a side coached by former Paris Saint-Germain manager Laurent Blanc, playing in yet another bio-secure bubble sans fans, and adjusting life to just four foreigners for the first time, FC Goa have another potential headache to deal with — late kickoffs, i.e; 10:30 PM IST.
But, considering Ferrando has moved the evening training sessions by a couple of hours — from their regular 5 PM starts to the rescheduled timing of 7 PM — all seems to be going as planned for FC Goa. Now, what remains to be seen is exactly how effective the well-thought-out plans turn out to be for the underdogs from India.
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