Given the summer exodus that saw FC Goa lose some of their best players and their charismatic coach Sergio Lobera, they would have been forgiven for a difficult start on the road with new coach Juan Ferrando. Hell, even hiding against the elite ISL Bengaluru FC in their first match would not have come as a surprise. What we saw in Ferrando’s first game in charge on Sunday, an exciting 2-2 draw against BFC, was the complete opposite.
With a team largely made up of new signings unfamiliar with their surroundings, facing a set of players with vast experience in the context of Indian football, most new coaches would have gone to safety first. But for much of the first half and most of the second, Goa played like seasoned pros and a team that knows each other too well. The only difference this time around was that they seemed to have found an element of determination without the ball to match the arrogance they often display when attacking.
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Bengaluru prepared with his usual conservative game plan: tight on his back, fighter in midfield, explosive at half-time and clinical on set pieces. The Goa sides of the past, especially Lobera’s, have always struggled against this setup – they haven’t beaten BFC since November 2017. That’s seven games now, including Sunday’s draw.
BFC has been so good at exploiting Goa’s vulnerabilities over the past three years, both at home and away, that it has become a predictable pattern. On Sunday, despite the tie, we saw signs that that pattern could be about to be broken.
Midfielders Lenny Rodrigues, Edu Bedia and Princeton Ribello matched BFC’s combativeness in the center, while full-backs Seriton Fernandes and Sanson Pereira kept close to the opposing wingers, denying wide spaces. His two new centers, Iván González and James Donachie, rarely left any gaps between them and kept Sunil Chhetri at bay. Bedia, one of the few stars left from the Lobera era, started in a deeper midfield, a position previously held by Ahmed Jahouh, and looked comfortable in his new role, distributing the ball up and out with ease.
However, Goa lagged behind in typical Goa fashion, lapses in concentration and defensive mistakes allowed BFC to do what they do best.
The first goal came from a throw-in, the new signing of Sanson Pereira lost Cleiton Silva for the latter to score with a free header. The second saw their center-backs caught out of position: Erik Paartalu stuck his head into a seemingly harmless cross and found Juanan, the BFC central defender of all people, unmarked to concede at home.
2-0 down. Almost an hour has passed. The same old Goa.
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The Goa sides of the past would likely have weakened under the pressure. Desperate for a goal, they could have ended up offering even more space for BFC to explode to lose by a greater margin. But unlike his predecessor, Ferrando read the situation perfectly and made the right changes.
He had brought Brandon Fernandes moments before the goal. After going 2-0 down, he brought in Alberto Noguera, a creative midfielder in place of Lenny. Both changes paid off immediately, as Goa began to play with style and purpose going forward, something that was lacking despite their defensive strength in the first half.
Like his lapses, the return also had Goa written all over it. The first came from a good sequence of passes after a throw-in, which ended with a needle-eye pass from Noguera to Igor Angulo, the man in charge of filling Coro’s shoes. Angulo’s spike also had a Coro feel as he went one-on-one with goalkeeper Gurpreet Sandhu, looked up and passed him to the lower right corner with his left foot rather than crushing him.
Sustained pressure from Goa produced the tie in three minutes. Another lovely move finding Alexander Jesuraj Romario, another of Ferrando’s second-half substitutes, on the right, his cross finished off by Angulo’s shot. They continued their relentless attacks for the last half hour or so, and on another night, they might as well have taken all three points.
For now, Ferrando will be happy with the point. He will be even happier to see that his players are willing to work for him, seem to understand his style and embrace his philosophy. A result like this, in his first game in charge, against a team like BFC, certainly seems like an early claim, but a genuine one.
For Carles Cuadrat and BFC, it was a job almost well done: They continue their impressive undefeated streak against the best at the table from last season, but is it getting a bit predictable? Very few teams in the league still seem to know how to get around them, but as we saw last season, and in the second half against Goa, it may not be enough for a title.
Regardless of whether they can match what they achieved with Lobera, what we did learn from Goa’s first game is that Ferrando is not an arbitrary appointment, and the transition may not be as difficult as many would have hoped.