FC Goa chief coach Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better known as Zico, has managed to taste relative success in his first two years at the helm of affairs but he will now be chasing the real thing. If Zico managed to steer FC Goa to the semifinals in the first edition, only to lose to eventual champions Atletico de Kolkata, the Goan franchise made it to the final at home but were unlucky to have been knocked out in the dying minutes of the match by Stiven Mendoza and Chennaiyin FC.
The loss in the final in front of a packed home crowd will have hurt Zico and now he is back to erase all those memories with a title triumph.
Unlike many teams in the ISL, Zico has chosen to keep faith in his foreign players having retained six of them, including former Brazil captain Lucio as marquee. Joffre Gonzalez, Reinaldo Oliveira, Rafael Coelho, Luciano Sobrosa and Gregory Arnolin have all returned to FC Goa but it’s the strength of their domestic contingent that could hit them hard this season.
FC Goa were pegged back by the suspension of their former co-owners and started signing domestic players only much later than other teams. Unfortunately for them, some of their key players from last season like Narayan Das, Pronay Halder, T Haokip and Bikramjit Singh moved to greener pastures, leaving FC Goa to hunt relatively new players. Robin Singh remains the only major signing but fans should not lose much hope as star midfielders, Romeo Fernandes and Mandar Rao Desai, are still around.
“I think if you have conditions to perform a job in the long term, joint with the vision of our owners who want to build a training facility and bring good sponsors on board to make the club financially stronger, it gives you more level-headedness while sequencing your work. With a strong vision, continuity is important. But we know that we need results; in football results are important, and I think in the last two years we have had good results. We will try our best again in the new season,” said Zico, while explaining the reasons for his return to Goa for the third consecutive season.
Zico’s determination to win big with FC Goa this season is best explained in his decision to take his team to Brazil for pre-season training. FC Goa spent three weeks in Rio de Janeiro training at Zico’s football school, and even though they won just one of their four friendlies, Zico will have plenty to cheer.
The defence, led by captain Lucio and Gregory Arnolin, were stuttering in the first match but did well to hold up in two of the four matches with a clean slate. Even striker Rafael Coelho has now struck form and the Brazilian newcomers in the team, Trindade Goncalves, Rafael Dumas and Richarlyson, have already given a good account of themselves.
The only worry for FC Goa could be in goal where Zico has opted to have all three Indian goalkeepers. Laxmikant Kattimani was the star man last season but it remains to be seen if he can continue in the same manner this season as well. Subhashish Roy Chowdhury and Sukhdev Patil are the two other goalkeepers in the team.
If the two editions of the Indian Super League has taught us anything, it is that experience and teamwork can be more important to a team’s success than big names. Zico has done well to cover up on that front.
CAN CHENNAIYIN FC DELIVER WITHOUT THEIR FOREIGN STARS?
Chennaiyin FC coach Marco Materazzi has been long enough in football to understand that once you have reached on the top, it’s always difficult to maintain that position. Having won the ISL 2015 championship, the Italian feel the heat as defending champions. But at same time it provides a unique opportunity to him and Chennaiyin FC to repeat his success in the Indian Super League and we know he will not stop at anything less.
Chennaiyin FC staged a remarkable comeback last season after being at the bottom of the points table. At one stage it seemed Chennaiyin FC would fail to even qualify for the semifinals but Materazzi, a World Cup winner with Italy in 2006, masterminded the team’s fairy tale comeback with a 3-2 victory over FC Goa in the final.
“Last year we showed both quality and character to bounce back from the bottom of the table and make it to the playoffs. I think Chennaiyin FC eventually won the trophy, deservingly,” said Materazzi.
Can Chennaiyin FC do the same this year? “It is always more difficult to retain the title than winning it but I believe in my squad to go all the way again,” he added.
Chennaiyin FC’s success last year was built on the scoring prowess of Colombian striker Stiven Mendoza. The star striker, now playing for New York City FC in the Major League Soccer (MLS), worked his magic right through the tournament, finishing as the top scorer and the best player of the ISL. This year, Chennaiyin FC are not blessed with a talent like Mendoza who can instil fear in the most disciplined of defences and have also lost Bruno Pelissari to Delhi Dynamos but they will continue to carry a goal threat as long as they have Jeje Lalpekhlua in the team.
Jeje stood out for Chennaiyin FC with six goals and three assists last year and has since then continued with his irrepressible form, scoring goals on the international front as well.
Another big loss for the franchise is goalkeeper Edel Bete. The Armenian goalkeeper won the ISL title for two successive seasons with two different teams and has now signed-up with FC Pune City. How much of that will impact Chennaiyin FC remains to be seen but the signing of Jamaican international goalkeeper Duwayne Kerr could help calm nerves.
Marquee player and captain Elano Blumner will be another major foreign absentee this season.
Chennaiyin’s hallmark all through the ISL has been its continuity. The franchise retained nine players from the first year and now have a record 14 players from last season. No team can afford such a luxury and working with the same core group will help Materazzi a great deal.
This has already reflected in pre-season friendlies in Italy where Materazzi’s team has already won three successive friendlies.
“We are going to take one game at a time and are well aware that every team has improved. The ISL is a very competitive league with games coming thick and fast over a short period so for me every team stands an equal chance of making the top four and that is our first target. After that we will see how well we can do in the knockouts,” said Materazzi.
While the absence of at least three foreign stars will hold back Chennaiyin FC a little, on the positive side, the defending champions still have the likes of Bernard Mendy and Raphael Augusto to build a side around. They have picked up John Arne Riise as their new leader in defence as marquee and have increased midfield options with the addition of Delhi Dynamos medio Hans Mulder.
Not everything seems lost for Chennaiyin FC. Just like last season, they can spring another surprise, thanks to Materazzi leading from the front with his work ethic and attention to detail.