2021 AFC Champions League, Group Stage

'Superman' Dheeraj Singh comes of age as FC Goa pull off another ACL upset

Glan Martins was a tireless presence in midfield for FC Goa vs Al Wahda in the AFC Champions League. FC Goa

As the referee blew his whistle to signal full time on Al Wahda 0-0 FC Goa, the expressions on the Goa faces said it all.

When the Indian side had held Al Rayyan three days previously for that debut 0-0, the atmosphere around the camp was one of excitement and relief. After an identical result against the team from the UAE, they appeared almost... crestfallen. Their faces almost saying, 'we've dropped two points here'.

Yes, Dheeraj Singh needed to be at his absolute best to keep Al Wahda out, but Goa arguably created the better chances on the night.

Brandon Fernandes came closest, smashing the ball against the post from the edge of the box after lovely build-up play from Jorge Ortiz and substitute Devendra Murgaonkar. Murgaonkar himself had a shot saved by Mohamed Al Shamsi in the Al Wahda goal -- a sensational reflex save off a clever shot from four yards out. There were at least three other semi-chances that ended before a shot was taken because of an error of judgement on the final ball.

Goa started the match where they had left off in the last -- getting stuck into the faces of their far more fancied opponents, crunching into tackles and refusing to give an inch.

Glan Martins, that surprise January transfer from ATK Mohun Bagan, was at the heart of it all. He was everywhere -- plugging holes wherever they appeared, dashing forward to support the lone striker, covering the fullbacks, sweeping up in front of the centre-backs. He was rugged in the challenge, and tireless with the running.

Behind him, the back four were stoic -- Seriton Fernandes and his last ditch tackling stood out, especially. Further behind them, Dheeraj was heroic.

From the flappy, nervous young man picked out of the wild by Goa mid-season, Dheeraj seems to have matured in real-time. There was still the odd, rush-of-blood loose pass, but his handling was supreme. High balls were dealt with nervelessly, reflex saves were pulled off on command (especially that one in the last minute against the dangerous Tim Matavz). For the kid who burst onto the national consciousness in 2017 as the starting goalkeeper for the U-17 team, this tournament is proving to be a right proper coming of age. After the match, his coach would declare, "Dheeraj was superman today."

Juan Ferrando would also dismiss suggestions that his team was unlucky not to get the win. "In a normal match, if you have three-four good chances and the opponent doesn't have any, you can call it unlucky. But, Al Wahda had 2-3 very good chances, for example in the last minute. This is the truth. Some chances for us, [some for them]. I am happy because our chances didn't come from set-pieces. They came from buildup, transition," he said.

The build-up play and the transitions were, at times, what we have expected to see from FC Goa over the years. Especially in the second half, when the introduction of Murgaonkar in place of Ishan Pandita injected a fresh sense of urgency.

For the second Champions League night in a row, Goa's collective will shone through.

Edu Bedia was quietly impressive in midfield yet again. Jorge Ortiz was a constant threat, a blur of motion on the flanks. Alexander Romario ran his heart out. Most importantly for Goa, though, Brandon Fernandes seems to be getting back to 100%. They had missed him in the ISL, when he had sat out most of it due to injury, but his clever passing and instant decision making makes them so much more of a goalscoring threat.

And so, onto the next game we go -- April 20, Persepolis, the champions of Iran, and the absolute giants of the group. And they go into it with two of the most unexpected points in the bag.

If the first game was about telling Asia that FC Goa weren't going to simply roll over, this one was about showing the continent that they could do more than just resist. Persepolis won't scare them. Now, that's progress.