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Will Goa’s Attacking Waves Crash Against Blasters’ Defensive Wall?

Friday, 8 December 2017|Vineeth Krishnan
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On the face of it, Saturday's ISL fourth round match-up between FC Goa and the visiting Kerala Blasters should heavily favour the hosts. Not only will the Gaurs have home support on their side, they have, in this short season, already developed a penchant for goals, scoring 8 in three ties so far.

On the other hand, the Blasters have been struggling in front of goal despite the presence in their squad of former Manchester United hitman Dimitar Berbatov and the ISL’s all time leading scorer, Iain Hume. In fact, the one goal they have scored in their three tries came from unheralded Dutch 20-year-old, Markos Sifneos.

However, the 'Manjappada’ boast the second meanest defence of this young season so far, and it is possible their backline gets a further boost if Wes Brown, another of their ex-Red Devils’ imports, makes his ISL debut at the Fatorda stadium. Brown, who missed the first game of the season due to an injury, has been kept out of the starting 11 so far by the initially imperious form of Serbian centre half, Nemanja Lakic Pesic. However, with Pesic having his least impressive match out of three in the last outing against Mumbai City, this could be the opening for Rene Meulensteen to give Brown a run out.

The hosts, meanwhile, might probably be happy to exchange some of the goals they have scored in return for the defensive solidity their opponents enjoy. They may be scoring close to three goals per game but are letting in almost as many, having conceded 7 in total. This has meant that Sergio Lobera, their Spanish coach, has had to endure quite a few frenetic, heart-in-mouth situations when they really should have coasted to victories. The previous match against Bengaluru FC is a case in point where Goa, playing their first home match of the season, were 3-1 and a man up at the break, only to see their opponents storm back and level the game on the hour mark. Lobera, who was a youth coach at FC Barcelona for 11 years, would at least have been pleased that true to the Blaugrana spirit, his men got all three points by eventually outscoring and outlasting Bengaluru, recording a breathtaking 4-3 win.

However, against a team as well organised as the Blasters, it wouldn't be a surprise if chances are fewer and further between than the Gaurs are used to. In further warning, the Blasters’ front line has steadily improved over the three games so far, a fact Meulensteen was keen to stress on both in the aftermath of their previous game as well as at the pre-match press conference in Goa.

“We have progressed over the last three games and this is another game for us to test where we stand. It's different because we haven’t played an away game yet. But more than anything, we focus on progressing,” said the Dutchman, who has repeatedly been telling his players the importance of playing the game the right way.

For someone with an education in the Dutch style of total football, this translates to building play up from the back, keeping possession and trying to launch attractive moves down the wings. His quest to achieve this goal has seen him give Berbatov a free role in midfield since he “has the ability to find room in (a congested) midfield, keep the ball under pressure and unlock defences with one pass.”

In the opposite dugout, Lobera is well aware of the as yet unfulfilled potential the Blasters’ forwards have, saying “I wouldn’t call them defensive because they have some brilliant players going forward and are very organised in attack.” However, he seems rather unperturbed by his side's defensive frailties, saying simply that they have room to get better while suggesting he is fine with his team's outscore-the-other-at-all-cost mentality. “We will look at... what we can do more than what the other team can do,” he said.

However, the game pans out it is sure to provide plenty of end to end action. For the Blasters, influential winger CK Vineeth misses out due to a red card picked up in the previous tie but indications are that fellow Malayali lad Rino Anto, who went off at halftime with a groin strain against Mumbai, should be fit to resume his place in the squad. Goa will hope that their hat-trick hero from the previous match, Coro, can keep up his exploits.

Bragging rights up and down the Western shore are certainly up for grabs with both teams having won three each of their former ISL meetings. The proud Goan supporters, meanwhile, will be chomping at the bit for their on-song team to avenge the two losses against these opponents in ISL3. Let the carnival begin!