The great escape of Sporting Clube de Goa
Sporting teams are usually judged on where they end up at the end of the season. Last season’s I-League had a storybook ending as the league was decided in a playoff of sorts between Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC at the Kanteerava Stadium with the latter needing a win to deny the Kolkata Giants their first I-League title. Bello Rasaq’s 87st-minute equalizer made sure that the I-League trophy would land in the City of Joy so that Mohun Bagan fans could enjoy being in the limelight after thirteen long years.
As the Mariners celebrated their day in the sun, another club celebrated one of the greatest escapes seen in modern day football. In a season when three-time winners Dempo were relegated to the second division, for the longest time it looked the it was another Goan club were facing the drop.
Midway through the 20-game season Sporting Clube de Goa had accumulated just five points, failing to win a single game. They scored just six goals in the ten games conceding a massive sixteen during the same time. They were favorites for going down as Dempo(9), Shillong Lajong(10) and Mumbai (12) looked pretty safe at that point.
Then came April and Sporting still looked like they couldn’t buy a win. A 4-1 demolition at the hands of Champions Bengaluru FC, compounded by draws against cross-town rivals Dempo and new-boys Royal Wahingdoh seemed to be the final nail in the coffin as after thirteen games they had still collected just seven points from a possible 39.
Dempo, in the meanwhile, had gone up to 12, Shillong had collected 13 and Mumbai were beginning to fumble collecting just a point in three games. With just seven games left in the season Sporting had to play league leaders Mohun Bagan twice, both Pune clubs and relegation rivals Mumbai FC and Shillong Lajong.
In the next two games, Sporting beat Salgaocar in the derby and then drew against a resolute Mumbai FC to finally take their points tally into double digits. In the same time, Dempo had increased their tally to 15 and while Shillong at 16 and Mumbai at 15 looked far off.
Stepping into May, the fixtures looked like a daunting task, but in the final month of the league Sporting suddenly found their form. They beat Bharat FC at home before putting a dent in Mohun Bagan’s title challenge with a 2-1 win scoring the winning goal in the 87th minute.
They then travelled to relegation rivals Shillong in a crucial six-point game. Sporting again came up with the goods scoring a late winner in the 83rd minute. With the victory, Sporting sealed their top-flight status for another year with two games to play.
They lost the next game against Mohun Bagan at the Barasat stadium by two goals, but Sporting were not in the relegation dogfight anymore. In the last game of the season, playing in front of their own fans Sporting decided to give their fans a glimpse of what to expect next season handing Pune FC a massive 4-0 defeat.
The deadly assassin
So what changed? How did a team who were struggling to score one goal in two games manage to pull off ten goals in the last five games. The answer is a very simple one.
In March head coach Mateus Costa made one addition to squad in the form of 30-year-old Nigerian striker Odafe Okolie, which proved to be a pivotal move with the striker scoring 8 goals in just 11 games to rescue Sporting from the hole they once found themselves in. Along with Okolie, Brandon Fernandes and Victorino Fernandes started to find their form but Okolie’s goals were the main reason for the change in Sporting’s fortunes
This is not the first time a signing has created such an impact on a team. Daniel Sturridge made his way to Liverpool, with the Merseyside club struggling in the bottom half of the table, but the Englishman was instrumental in changing the fortunes of the club. In his 16 games for the club, Sturridge scored 11 goals helping Liverpool finish in seventh position.
Sporting have retained the Nigerian for the next season and if he can recreate the magic of the last 7 games, Sporting might just fill the space left by Dempo in the league.