FC Goa enter the playoffs on the back of a rather stop-start season. Their tendency to concede early, cheap goals was offset by a collective tenacity that has seen them score more late equalisers and winners than anyone else in the division. While it wasn’t enough to defend their league shield crown, the playoffs give them another chance to end the domestic season on a high. Trouble is, they now face a manager whom they sacked three games before the end of last season, and the man who gave Goa the identity we associate with them. Sergio Lobera took with him five key cogs of that winning team, and beating Mumbai City FC would mean more than just a place in the final for some Goa players. But it’s not going to be easy.
Mumbai rolled into the playoffs of the 2020-21 ISL playoffs in style. They started the league brilliantly, burned out a little, but recovered fast (and well) enough to finish top of the table. They are a squad stacked with talent across the pitch, have multiple methods to hurt you, have goal-scoring threats spread across the park, and have the second-stingiest defence in the league.
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Just how, then, can Juan Ferrando and his newly-minted Goa stop the Mumbai juggernaut?
The key lies in three distinct areas.
1. Stop Loberaball at the source
Ahmed Jahouh has played for Lobera at three different clubs. There’s a reason — he’s the on-pitch source of Loberaball.
Jahouh is the footballing manifestation of Lobera’s keep-ball, pass-pass-pass, have-fun football. Through this season, the laid-back regista has controlled the tempo of games, dropping in between the centre-backs, shifting gears and moving forward with ease, working the channels with his imaginative, decisive passing.
Stop him, and you cancel out Lobera’s plan A.
This is where the suspension of Alberto Noguera (who got sent off after being taken for unsportsmanlike conduct on the bench) could be turned into an advantage. If available for selection, Noguera plays — after all he is Ferrando’s Jahouh. But without him, Ferrando has the option of playing someone with a defensive mandate in the hole behind the striker with the sole remit of man-marking Jahouh out of the game.
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Stopping Jahouh would also have a cascading effect further up the pitch. Whoever plays as the no.10 (be it Boumous or Adam Le Fondre) would have to drop deeper and deeper in search of the ball. Which would in turn isolate the striker (either Bartholomew Ogbeche or Le Fondre), cutting down Mumbai’s ability to play the intricate, one-touch football that has wowed the league. Besides, both Jahouh and Boumous are known to get easily frustrated the longer you keep them off the ball, and they can make extremely rash decisions when in that mood. In a finely-poised knockout match, that just might give Goa the edge they need.
But it’s not just a defensive tactic. By playing, say, Redeem Tlang in this role, Ferrando would ensure the presence of a tenacious, high-energy presence on Jahouh’s shoulder, and also allow Jorge Ortiz and Alexander Romario Jesuraj to play in their preferred positions on either wing. This is important because…
Attack Mumbai’s flanks
The flanks are likely where Goa will find the most joy. Jorge Ortiz, Ferrando’s best ball carrier, was in superb form before an injury laid him low. He’s expected to return to the starting XI for the match. His direct running can throw off any full back in the division, and as impressive as Amey Ranawade has been at right back, it will be a big challenge to keep Ortiz quiet.
On the other wing, Romario’s underrated ball carrying ability and knack to pick out the right pass will worry Mandar Rao Dessai (or his understudy, Vignesh Dhakshinamoorthy). Mumbai’s left-backs are superb moving forward, but can be caught out by Romario’s crafty movement.
Combine this with Igor Angulo’s almost-unmatched ability to ghost in off the shoulder of the centre-backs, and the chemistry the trio have displayed through the season, and you have a potent strategy — If you can’t go through them, go around and sneak-in behind them.
Once again, this has a twin-benefit. It keeps Mumbai from overloading the flanks with their full-backs, and in turn preventing their wingers (Bipin Singh, Cy Goddard, Jackichand Singh, now Pranjal Bhumij) from cutting inside to occupy dangerous channels in and around the box.
Minimise silly fouls
Yes, it’s such a mundane point. Yes, nobody ever sets out to give away cheap fouls in their own third. And yes, a lot of teams do nevertheless. The possible presence of the twinkle-toed Boumous makes this all the more harder. But discipline is of the essence. Just ask ATK Mohun Bagan, who gave away cheap freekicks (players ambling around near the edge of the final third, players running straight across the pitch into areas of no danger), and paid the price for it last Sunday.
Mumbai, for all their wonderful football when the ball is in play, are sensational with the dead ball. There’s a reason more than half the league-leading 35 goals they’ve scored have come via set-pieces.
From across the pitch Jahouh can pick who he wants, how he wants to. And Mumbai have a lot of players for him to choose from. Hernan Santana and Le Fondre have an eerie knack of finding pockets of space where there oughtn’t be any. Ogbeche is close to unstoppable in the air. Mourtada Fall is unstoppable in the air.
While Goa can always play Adil Khan to give them a touch more height and presence in the box, it may not be enough. What is it that they say about prevention and cures? A touch of extra discipline defensively can make all the difference.
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