Given the summer exodus that saw FC Goa lose some of their best players and their charismatic manager Sergio Lobera, they would have been forgiven for a bumpy start to the road with new manager Juan Ferrando. Heck, even a hiding against ISL elite Bengaluru FC in their opening game wouldn't have been a surprise. What we saw in Ferrando's first game in charge on Sunday, a thrilling, come-from-behind 2-2 draw against BFC, was anything but.
With a squad largely made up of fresh signings unfamiliar with their surroundings, going up against a set of players with vast experience in the context of Indian football, most new managers would have gone safety first. But for much of the first half, and most of second, Goa played like seasoned professionals, and like a team that knows each other all too well. The only difference this time, was that they seem to have found an element of grit without the ball to match the swagger they typically show when they attack.
Bengaluru set up with their usual conservative gameplan - tight at the back, feisty in midfield, explosive on the break and clinical on set pieces. The Goa sides of the past, especially those under Lobera, have always struggled against this set-up - they haven't beaten BFC since November 2017. That's seven games now, including Sunday's draw.
BFC have been so good at exploiting Goa's vulnerabilities past three years, both home and away, that it has become a predictable pattern. On Sunday, despite the draw, we saw signs that that pattern might be about to break.
Midfielders Lenny Rodrigues, Edu Bedia and Princeton Ribello matched BFC's combativeness in the centre, while full backs Seriton Fernandes and Sanson Pereira stayed tight to the opposition wingers, denying spaces out wide. Their two new centre backs - Ivan Gonzalez and James Donachie rarely left gaping holes between them and kept Sunil Chhetri at bay. Bedia, one of the few remaining stars of the Lobera era, started in deeper midfield, a position previously occupied by Ahmed Jahouh, and looked comfortable in his new role, distributing the ball up-field and out wide with ease.
Yet, Goa went behind in typical Goa fashion, lapses of concentration and defensive errors allowing BFC to do what they're best at doing.
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The first goal came from a throw-in, new signing Sanson Pereira losing Cleiton Silva for the latter to score with a free header. The second saw their centre-backs caught out of position: Erik Paartalu getting his head on a seemingly harmless cross and finding Juanan - the BFC central defender of all people -- unmarked to slot home.
2-0 down. Almost an hour gone. Same old Goa.
The Goa sides of the past would likely have wilted under the pressure. Desperate for a goal, they might have ended up offering even more spaces for BFC to exploit to lose by a bigger margin. But unlike his predecessor, Ferrando read the situation perfectly and made the right changes.
He had brought on Brandon Fernandes moments before the goal. After going 2-0 down, he brought on Alberto Noguera, a creative midfielder in place of Lenny. Both changes paid off right away, as Goa started playing with flair and purpose going forward - something that was missing despite their defensive solidity in the first half.
Much like their lapses, the comeback also had Goa written all over it. The first came from a nice passing sequence following a throw-in, ending with an eye-of-the-needle pass by Noguera to Igor Angulo, the man tasked with filling Coro's shoes. Angulo's finish also had a Coro feel to it as he went one-on-one with keeper Gurpreet Sandhu, looked up and passed it into the bottom right corner with his left foot rather than smashing it.
Goa's sustained pressure produced the equalizer, within three minutes. another lovely move finding Alexander Jesuraj Romario - another one of Ferrando's second-half subs - on the right, his cross ending with a scrappy finish by Angulo. They continued with their relentless attacks throughout the last half an hour or so, and on another night, might 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, but genuine vindication.
For Carles Cuadrat and BFC, it was a job almost well done - they continue their impressive unbeaten run against last season's table-toppers, but is it all becoming 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 under 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 tough as many would have expected.