Panaji, March 18 (IANS) FC Goa will be the first team to play in the AFC Champions League group stage after they finished on top of the league standings in the Indian Super League season.
Heading into the season, that hope had metamorphosed into expectations. And there were fair reasons for the same. After having reached the playoffs in each of the last two seasons (reaching the final last season thanks to some impressive performances, especially in the opposing half), the Gaurs ensured to grab their first piece of silverware with a triumph in the Super Cup in 2019.
The test to recreate the magic of the previous two seasons for the Gaurs began with the very first game. With three of their stalwarts (Edu Bedia, Hugo Boumous and Ahmed Jahouh) missing in action for the opener, the onus fell on the rest of the squad to up their game.
And they did so magnificently. The likes of Manvir Singh and new-signing Seiminlen Doungel stepped up to the plate and delivered a thumping 3-0 win over Chennaiyin on their home turf.
The next two games, meanwhile, brought to light a different aspect of the Gaur fortitude. Still hamstrung by unavailabilities, they mustered two gritty performances to stay unbeaten.
Coro stepped up to the plate against Bengaluru (thanks to a 93rd minute penalty) - bagging himself a penalty and then dispatching it to earn the Gaurs a draw.
A few days later, Goa would need another moment of inspiration. This time, up against NorthEast in Guwahati, the defending Super Cup champions faced a severe test of their character. They squandered a first-half lead. Then went down to 10 men before scripting the last line of the game.
This time, it was Manvir Singh who delivered the goods for Goa with the last touch of the game. The forward rose highest and headed in the equaliser, in what was the 6th minute of time added on at the end of the game.
Heading back to the pitch where they had annihilated Mumbai City 5-1 in the first leg of the semi-final, the Gaurs seemed to have found their mojo again at the Andheri Football Arena. There was sync, cohesion and a reminiscence of the Gaurs of old - an eager bunch striding forward at every opportunity, hacking down the opposition with precise movements and intricate passing.
A 4-2 win and the season was off to a 4-game unbeaten start with expectations of FC Goa using that performance as the launching pad.
It turned out to be a temporary relief as the Gaurs suffered their first loss of the season at home to Jamshedpur.
That, though, turned out to be a timely wake-up call. With heels dug in and again a man short, the Men in Orange dug out a crucial point in Kochi in the next game.
And if that was not a true show of their character, their performance in the next game against Hyderabad surely was. Chinglensana Singh came from the bench to produce a Hero of The Match performance whilst Manvir Singh yet again came off the bench to deliver the telling blow.
Thanks to that 1-0 away win, the Gaurs remained in the top 4 as the calendar promised of tougher tests to come.
The first of them was a visit from the high-flying ATK. Led by the electric duo of Roy Krishna and David Williams, the team from the City of Joy presented Goa with arguably their biggest test till date in the season.
The Gaurs played in the only way they could.
With the talismanic Ferran Corominas back in the line-up, what also returned was belief in the ranks for FC Goa. A 2-1 win over the then two-time champions helped herald a 4-game winning streak.
There was fervour in their movement and intent in every step that the Gaurs took. It was fun to be an FC Goa fan again.
Odisha FC were the first to face the wrath of Goa as they were trounced 3-0 before the Men in Orange took their case to Chennai. Under Owen Coyle, the Machans had gone through a mini-revival. However, a first-half that saw the Gaurs race to a 3-0 lead put an end to their schemes.
Chennaiyin did mount a fight-back in the 2nd half. The devastating blows, however, of the first forty five minutes were enough to get the away side over the hump. The eventual 4-3 win helped the Gaurs secure a 5-point lead at the top of the table.
From there, Goa did not look back and finished top of the ladder and also played Chennaiyin FC in the semi-final where they gave it their all in the dying minutes, even came close to taking the match away from Chennaiyin FC (CFC). In the end, however, it was the visiting team that had the last laugh.
Despite the 2-4 defeat to Goa in the second leg semi-final of an entertaining clash, CFC progressed on better aggregate (6-5).