FC Goa face big test against Iranian giants Persepolis in AFC Champions League

To say there is bad blood between Persepolis and Indian football would be an understatement. The Iranian club, currently in Goa for the Asian Champions League, has been on a warpath with All India Football Federation (AIFF) even before they landed in the country. This, along with a series of other incidents, has added spice to their Group E encounter against FC Goa, set to take place on Tuesday at the Fatorda Stadium.

It all started with the Persepolis website alleging that they had received information that the Dabolim Airport, in possession of the Indian Navy, was denying their entourage a flight permit. The same statement went on to accuse Indian authorities of sabotage.

“Until last night, a visa to travel to India had been issued to the Iranian whites, and the Indian Football Federation had been informed of the presence of the Persepolis team a week ago and had also sent confirmation for the arrival of the team convoy, but within a few hours everything changed.

Undoubtedly, this problem has nothing to do with Persepolis Club and the Football Federation, and it seems that the Indian authorities are sabotaging it,” said a team statement on Persepolis’ website.

This was then followed by an Instagram post that compared their match against Goa to the invasion of India by a Persian emperor. The AIFF complained to the Asian Football Confederation and Persepolis apologised for the post.

“You shall not pass”

Coming to the football, the matchup will see the team with the best offence in the group go up against a stingy Goan side that has not conceded in 180 minutes. The surprise of Goa doing well enough to pick up a couple of points from their first two games was echoed by Persepolis coach Yahya Golmohammadi.

“Goa have proven to be a very good side and I think they are the surprise package in the Champions League so far,” said Golmohammadi. “They stopped two good teams (Al Wahda and Al Rayyan) and these draws were not lucky at all.”

The question of why Goa have yet to concede a goal is one whose answer lies in the way the team has been set up. A three-man midfield comprising Edu Bedia, Glan Martins and Brandon Fernandes usually operates deep in their own half. Clogging the channels has allowed a player like Martins to eat up interceptions with ease over the two games.

But it is the technical ability of these three players to hold on to the ball after winning it that is ensuring Goa has possession and their opponents don’t get to play with the ball as much, and thus don’t get to take as many high-quality shots as they would like.

In two games, both Al Rayyan and Al Wahad took 12 shots apiece, with Rayyan managing to be on target three times, while Al Wahad had six shots on target. Those attempts were saved by Dheeraj Singh, the goalkeeper who was part of the Indian team that played the 2017 U-17 World Cup on home soil.

A test of fitness

A game every three days essentially means no practice sessions between matches. Every game is followed by trying to get players’ bodies to recover as much as possible. Most of FC Goa’s statistics from the first game – be it the number of passes, or the percentage of possession, dropped slightly in the second game and it isn’t farfetched to believe that the same could happen against Persepolis.

But where statistics of holding onto the ball dropped, there was also an uptick in the quality of chances created, something that Gaurs coach Juan Ferrando mentioned in the post-match press conference after his team’s game against Al Wahad.

“I am happy because our chances were not in set-pieces, it was in the build-up. Then in transition, we need to improve in the last part of the pitch, but also it’s very important to talk about the balance,” said Ferrando.

The Persepolis test

Whether the quality of football while going forward continues on an upward graph is the question that will be answered on Tuesday.

Persepolis were runners-up in the AFC Champions League in 2018 and 2020. One of Asia’s best teams, the Iranian outfit has already beaten Al Rayyan and Al Wahad in their first two games.

In their first two games, Persepolis enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, took 13 shots on target against Al Rayyan and have scored all their four goals of the tournament between the 40th and 60th minute of a game.

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