ISL 2019-20: Can FC Goa finally conquer the final frontier?
They play the most attractive brand of football in the ISL. They have scored more goals than anyone in the six years of the ISL. They have made more playoffs than anyone in the ISL. And yet, FC Goa have one glaring blemish in their thus five-year history - they haven't lifted that ISL trophy.
They've come close twice, only for their hearts to be broken right at the death. A Laxmikant Kattimani howler and a John Stiven Mendoza winner late in regulation time for Chennayin F, in the 2015 final, saw their dream being snatched away in front of their home fans after they'd taken a 2-1 lead even as late as the 88th minute.
Cut to last season, and the final at the Mumbai Football Arena. In an evenly-matched contest between the two best sides in the competition, all it took was a 117th-minute header from Rahul Bheke for Bengaluru FC to sneak a 1-0 win and take the trophy back to the Garden City.
What, then, lies in store for the Gaurs in the 2019-20 season of the ISL? Head coach Sergio Lobera thinks it's going to be more of the same for his side, saying that he would rather concentrate on their style of play and making constant improvement, rather than setting an ultimate goal.
Very happy that when people talk about us, it's not only trophies. they love the way we play. To win the respect of the people is the biggest trophy of all. To win the trophy, it's necessary for us to improve even more," Lobera said.
Goa have kept the faith, and as has been proved time and time again in the ISL, that leads to positive results, more often than not. But Goa's leap of faith has been unprecedented. Not only has Lobera stayed back, every single one of their foreigners has had at least one season at the club before this, their Indian players now groove to the same tunes that Lobera sings.
2019-20 could be the season where Goa finally find that trophy which has just eluded them so far.
Lobera, though, was quick to put a stop to any notions of thinking as far as ahead as a championship win, in his pre-match press conference ahead of their opening game of the season against Chennaiyin FC.
Getting to the playoffs ofcourse remains a prime target. But with the continental spot up for grabs, we will of course look to clinch the top spot in the league.
They have broken that seeming final hoodoo, though. They lifted their first-ever piece of silverware last season when they beat Chennaiyin FC 2-1 in the final of the Super Cup. It was a rightful validation of Lobera's methods, that has quickly seen Goa become a neutral's favourite, and the most watchable side in Indian Football, perhaps.
The Goa of 2017-18, Lobera's first season, is now long gone. That Goa was a gung-ho Goa, a goal-happy Goa. Unfortunately for them, though, they were goal-happy at both ends of the pitch. Lobera, though, didn't care about the goals that were going in at his team's expense. He was focused on what he had to do, the results would show for themselves.
In 2018-19, maybe by design, maybe by coincidence, the results showed. Goa had the joint-most number of clean sheets in the ISL. Of course, Mourtada Fall coming into the side helped. Of course, the Senegalese centre-back repelling anything that came his way through sheet force was a massive boost, but Lobera and Goa turned it around for themselves, too.
In came Lenny Rodrigues to cut out the opposition's supply-line with his non-stop midfield running. Carlos Pena, a left-back by trade, was slotted alongside Fall, Seriton Fernandes was immense. Goa had turned it around.
And that's what Lobera has loved in his stint in India - the possibility he has to improve the players he has at his disposal. Mandar Rao Desai and Brandon Fernandes now regularly feature in India head coach Igor Stimac's plans, and Lobera believes that the coveted call-up is not too far away for Seriton, and so too a recall for Lenny in national colours.
That's what Sergio Lobera has done. He's taken his Indian players' games to another level. he's got his Indian players to complement some of the most talented foreigners to grace Indian shores.
What he's not done, though, is win the ISL? They will be in and around the big dance in 2019-20, I'd think that's a safe wager if you were a betting man. At this point, with not all teams having kicked a ball yet, you should also say that placing your money on Goa lifting the trophy in March, is as safe a bet as there is.
They're that good. They don't need a trophy to validate how good they are. But sometimes, trophies are a happy coincidence to being the best you can be.