Indian Super League semi-finals: Carlos’ naive team selection proved to be his undoing against Goa

Indian Super League semi-finals: Carlos’ naive team selection proved to be his undoing against Goa
Photo Credit: IANS
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A marvellous night at the Fatorda Stadium on Tuesday, which was drenched in a sea of blue and orange, culminated in wild celebrations amid a strong sense of redemption. One year on from the painful semi-final exit at the hands of Atletico De Kolkata in front of their own fans, FC Goa demolished Delhi Dynamos 3-0 (3-1 on aggregate) to gift its supporters a dream Indian Super League final at home.

By doing so, Goa also laid to rest their semifinal hoodoo. In three previous semi-final matches, amounting to over 300 minutes of football, Zico’s men had failed to score even once. Down a goal from the first leg in Delhi, and rather fortunate not to find themselves further behind, they had to find a way to score twice to guarantee a win.

So, Zico reverted to his old guard. Out went defenders Raju Gaekwad, who was injured anyway, and Narayan Das; in came attack-minded Indian wingers Romeo Fernandes and Mandar Rao Desai to occupy the vacant wing-back positions. Hard-tackling midfielder Bikramjit Singh was also drafted in along with forwards Dudu Omagbemi and Rafael Coelho, both of whom had joined mid-season as replacements for injured players.

Romeo and Mandar, as wingers in a 4-2-3-1 formation, had formed the basis of Zico’s expansive brand of football for much of last year. But in 12 matches since a 0-4 home defeat to Chennaiyin FC early in season two, which exposed Goa’s vulnerability through the centre of the field, the duo had only started together twice (one of them being the 7-0 hammering of Mumbai City FC).

Scarred by the heavy loss, the manager had opted for a more measured approach throughout the season. In fact, even when Romeo’s second-half introduction proved to be the catalyst for a stunning come-from-behind 3-2 win in Delhi prior to the semifinals, he did not make the starting XI for the first leg.

Zico goes hell for leather

On Tuesday night, though, Zico opted to go hell for leather. Five changes from the narrow first-leg defeat, which had seen him put out a remarkably defensive side, meant the Goan starting XI was not only significantly more offensive in nature but also much fresher in terms of fitness.

On the other hand, Delhi manager Roberto Carlos opted for an unchanged line-up. It was a puzzling, and ultimately decisive, move from the visiting manager. Even for a home leg, Delhi’s starting XI last Friday was uncharacteristically attacking for a team that has found success this season in its dogged defending. Although it worked wonders on the day ‒ Delhi should’ve scored at least three goals ‒ selecting the same XI for an away fixture was a rather bold move. Especially when you consider that the Romeo-Mandar duo had already ran the Dynamos ragged in the clubs’ opening fixture of this season (which was a 2-0 win for Goa).

Carlos’ naivety in team selection

At times, there is a thin line between bravery and naivety. Carlos’s selection quite emphatically, and not unexpectedly, proved to be the latter. He had already experienced once that when Zico decides to throw caution to the wind in a home tie, the results are usually spectacular: fast starts, scintillating wing-play and the backing of a boisterous crowd. Once again, he found it to be no different.

Fatorda hadn’t particularly been a fortress for FC Goa this season. The Gaurs had won only three matches at home. But unlike other visiting teams that found success there, the Dynamos did not have the right resources to manage Goa’s initial burst. That was evident from the first minute itself, when Romeo and Co. came flying out of the blocks and nearly created an opening via the right flank.

Of Delhi’s four midfield players on the day, only Anderson Chicao was a proper tackler. Others, namely Gustavo Dos Santos, Florent Malouda and Shylo “Mama”, were not known for their defensive prowess. An injury to Souvik Chakraborty meant Sehnaj Singh, a defensive midfielder, was forced to continue as a makeshift right-back. Much of the pre-match talk had focused on the absence of Hans Mulder, a rock in Delhi’s midfield and one of only two foreigners retained from last season. Mulder was often been paired with Chicao in central midfield but Carlos instead opted for a more adventurous line-up. It was a gamble that backfired.

Less than half an hour into the contest, and even before Carlos could react to Goa’s dominance, the home side had turned a 0-1 deficit into a 2-1 aggregate lead. Joffre Matheu breezed past John Arne Riise on the right flank and slotted home to bring Goa level in the tie, following which Rafael Coelho doubled the scoring by pouncing on a long pass and driving a low shot past goalkeeper Antonio Doblas.

At 2-0 up, Goa happily retreated to their preferred counter-attacking style of play. The home side held 53% possession up until the second goal, but ended the match with only 41%. Along the way, they missed a whole host of clear-cut chances before Dudu finally wrapped up a final berth with a third goal late in the game.

By the end of the match, Delhi’s frustrations had boiled over. Forward Adil Nabi, who had been substituted, lost his cool and was sent off for his antics on the bench. The visitors rarely threatened all night. For a team that had made a habit of eking out results all season, the Dynamos bowed out in timid fashion. Most of which was down to the manager’s team selection.