FC Goa await trial by fire in AFC Champions League debut

Captain Edu Bedia's leadership and calmness in midfield has been key for Goa. FC Goa

FC Goa will become the first Indian team to compete in the group stages of Asia's premiere club competition, the AFC Champions League on April 14, when they play Qatari side Al Rayyan. Ahead of this debut, we look at what's in store for the Indian side.

How did Goa do in ISL 2020-21?

Juan Ferrando's men finished fourth in the league stages, before losing to eventual champions Mumbai City FC in the semis (on penalties after drawing 2-2 in the first leg and 0-0 in the second.)

The nature of that loss means that as per the record books, Goa are on a 15-game unbeaten streak. It's a testament to the fact that Goa improved as the season went by, as Ferrando had predicted before the tournament began. Having spent even more time with the squad now, they should be better prepared before the start of the ACL campaign.

What does the squad look like?

With the AFC only allowing three foreigners (+ 1 foreigner from an AFC affiliated nation), Ferrando had a tough decision to make. In the end, he opted to go with Ivan Gonzalez, James Donachie, Jorge Ortiz, and club captain Edu Bedia.

Missing out are the season's highest assist maker, Alberto Noguera, and ISL golden boot winner Igor Angulo. Angulo scored 14 of Goa's 33 goals. The next closest is Ortiz with six. Noguera had eight assists to his name, the next closest is Alexander Romario Jesuraj with 4.

These are big numbers, and the two will be massive misses.

Ferrando acknowledges the same, but says he had a choice to make. Gonzalez and Donachie were needed at the back for the solidity and experience they bring to a competition that's a level or two above the ISL. Bedia's leadership and calmness in midfield was deemed indispensable as well. Ortiz's flexibility -- he can play no. 9, no. 10, or down the wings -- proved the tipping point when it came to choosing the final foreigner.

All this means there's added pressure on the domestic contingent. Brandon Fernandes is back to full fitness having missed large swathes of the ISL through injury. He will shoulder the playmaking burden in the absence of Noguera, and a lot will depend on his form. Glan Martins has impressed alongside Bedia in central midfield, while Amarjit Singh and Princeton Rebello are impressive deputies. Jesuraj and Redeem Tlang are ever-willing runners on the flanks. Exciting youngster Ishan Pandita is likely to get a little more game time up top. A fascinating sub-plot is that the once highly rated Romeo Fernandes has been called in out of the wild and has made the squad.

Ferrando, though, knows that the situation isn't ideal. "It is a shame the young Indian players have not had a proper adaptive process [gaining more playing time in the ISL]. Instead, they will be facing the best teams in Asia straightaway," he says. "From a methodological and learning process point of view, this is not the best option, but there is nothing we can do about it."

Who are the opponents?

Al Rayyan (14 Apr, 26 Apr)

Coached by French legend Laurent Blanc (ex-coach, France and PSG), Al Rayyan finished 3rd in the 2020-21 edition of the Qatar Stars League. They are eight-time winners of the QSL.

Ivorian striker Yohan Boli and Algerian winger Yacine Brahimi are their biggest goal threats. They will, though, be missing the services of experienced Argentine defender Gabriel Mercado.

Last season Al Rayyan had lost in the playoffs of the ACL, against Iranian giants Esteghlal Tehran FC.

Al Wahda (17 Apr, 29 Apr)

Two-time winners of the UAE Pro League, Al Wahda are not in the best of form coming into the ACL. They are currently eighth in the league.

But most of their struggles have come defensively. Moving forward, they are still a force to reckon with, as 41 goals in 23 games attests to (in comparison, Goa scored 31 goals in 20 league matches). Slovenian striker Tim Mavatz is their primary goalscorer while captain Ismail Matar is the creative force-in-behind. Syrian centre-forward Omar Khribin is a major threat as well.

Al Wahda didn't play in last season's ACL after they had to withdraw from the competition after several members of the club tested positive for COVID-19. They had been in second place in Group A before the tournament took a break during the height of the pandemic.

Persepolis (20 Apr, 23 Apr)

The true giants of this group. They are 13-time winners of the national league (in its various iterations), four of which have come in the last four seasons. The 2020-21 season hasn't been any different -- 20 matches in, they are tied atop the league with Sepahan on 41 points.

An all-Iranian outfit, they distribute their goals around the team with the main threats being wingers Omid Alishah and Vahid Amiri, and midfielder Ahmad Nourollahi.

Last season, they finished as ACL runners-up, after losing 2-1 to South Korea's Ulsan Hyundai in the final.

What can we expect from Goa?

Finishing anywhere other than bottom of the group would come as a surprise, particularly given the inexperience of the Indian contingent and the fact that this is the first time the club is having to play with just four foreigners.

In the ISL, Goa were a possession-heavy side (no one averaged more passes at ~480 per game) but Ferrando says that will not be the case in the continental competition. Where a player can take multiple touches on the ball before releasing it in the ISL, a similar approach would invite trouble in the ACL, he says.

Edu Bedia echoes his manager's words. "It's important to remember that we are not used to this experience. We are a team that likes to keep a lot of the ball but we might not see a lot of the ball. When we do get the ball, we need to keep it well and stop them from making quick transitions," he says.

Final words

There's one more thing Goa will need to get used to -- late kickoffs. All apart from one of the six group stage matches kick off at 10.30 PM local time. With ISL kickoffs being a uniform 7.30 PM, and I-League by 7.00 PM latest, this is something not many Indian players would have ever experienced in their professional careers.

Ferrando, though, is not worried about this change, and has simply moved evening training sessions a couple of hours -- from their regular 4.30 - 5.00 PM starts to 7.00 PM.

For viewers in India, the matches will be telecast on Star Sports 3 and Disney+ Hotstar