With the clock running down rapidly, Hyderabad FC grew seemingly more desperate to restore parity against Kerala Blasters FC in the Indian Super League (ISL) 2021-22 final.
Head coach Manolo Marquez threw in the likes of Halicharan Narzary and Sahil Tavora to rescue the match. And like a messiah, Tavora answered the calls of the Nizams faithful.
The 26-year-old midfielder produced a stunning long-range volley in the 88th minute. The ball evaded Blasters keeper Prabhsukhan Gill and hit the back of the net as Hyderabad equalized in just the nick of time.
The Hyderabad bench was euphoric as Tavora salvaged an opportunity for the club to lay hands on their maiden ISL title. The team's talismanic centre-back Juanan narrated how even with a goal down, the Spaniard always believed the Nizams could fight back.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, the former Bengaluru FC defender opened up about all the emotions that ran through his mind during the tense penalty shootout in the ISL final.
Goalkeeper Laxmikant Kattimani cemented his position in Hyderabad's footballing folklore with three clutch saves in the shootout.
Juanan revealed how the entire Nizams bench and their goalkeeping coach Marc Gamon trusted Kattimani to kill the game if it rolled into penalties.
This was the former Real Madrid Castilla defender's second ISL title. During his five-year stint at Bengaluru FC between 2016 and 2021, the Spaniard lifted the trophy in the 2018-19 season.
However, Juanan averred that Hyderabad FC's triumph will always have a "special place" in his heart, given how difficult the season was mentally.
Despite all the struggles, the former Leganes defender solidified Hyderabad FC's backline alongside Chinglensana Singh. In 21 matches, the Spaniard recorded 29 tackles, 26 interceptions, and 70 clearances.
Although the Nizams hogged the limelight with their attacking display, Juanan was rock-solid at the back throughout the season. He was the primary reason behind the club conceding the second-lowest number of goals (23).
Here are the excerpts of Juanan's chat:
Question: Firstly, congratulations on the incredible victory. Could you sum up the emotions you’ve been feeling over the last few days since the ISL victory?
Juanan: Thank you. Since coming to India six months ago, our first objective was to get into the Indian Super League playoffs. But as the season progressed and we saw how our team was playing, we realized we could get into the final. Winning the final has been incredible and I am very happy to win the title.
Q: Talking about the final, what were your emotions like when Hyderabad FC were a goal down against Kerala Blasters with the full-time whistle approaching?
Juanan: It was something the team has gone through throughout the season. Except for two games, the team has always been a goal down and we have always come back. And that is something we knew in the final that even with a goal down, with the fighting spirit the team had, we were going to have the opportunity to get back into the game. With Tavora's goal, we finally got back into the game and ultimately won it.
Q: Could you describe the moments during the penalty shootout?
Juanan: During the penalty shootout, I was very nervous. From the bench, the goal seemed really small. But the team trusted Laxmikant Kattimani and even our goalkeeping coach felt that if the game went to penalties, he would do really well.
Q: What has it been like to play under head coach Manolo Marquez? What has been his influence on the team?
Juanan: Manolo is a coach who works a lot on the tactical part of the game. He talks a lot with his players and he is very close to them. He makes sure that we feel comfortable. And for a coach who has only been at the club for two seasons to now win the title, it tells a lot about the work he puts in.
Q: In the center of the Hyderabad FC backline, you were paired with a young Indian defender in Sana Singh. What did you make of his performance?
Juanan: Sana is obviously a very good player and one of the best centre-backs in India, which is why he was called up for the national team. Apart from Sana, Akash Mishra and Asish Rai helped the defense a lot. Not just in the defense, the other Indian youngsters across the pitch have helped the team a lot.
But yes, I had a very good relationship with Sana outside the pitch and we used to spend a lot of time together. Talk during training sessions and analyze the opposition attackers.
Q: You are one of the most experienced players in the HFC camp and have also won the ISL title earlier. So what was your message to the younger players ahead of the knockout games?
Juanan: One of the main messages was to tell the younger players to remain calm and relaxed. But at the end of the day, with Bart Ogbeche, Joao Victor, Joel Chianese, we had an experienced group of players who had played in many teams and at many different levels.
If you’re nervous before any game, it doesn’t help. We stressed on playing a relaxed game as we had the capacity to win the title.
Q: Could you talk about the experience of playing in front of the fans in the Indian Super League grand finale after two years?
Juanan: It was very good. Finally, we could feel the sensation of playing a football game. Because in the last two years, without the fans, you definitely don’t feel the same emotions. To have the fans back in the stadiums has been really amazing.
Q: How difficult has this season been mentally with the COVID-19 outbreak in the camps and then playing inside a bio-bubble without fans?
Juanan: It has been a really tough season. Being in a hotel for six months, not being able to meet our family and not even having an opportunity to go out for a cup of coffee, has been really difficult. I have two kids and they call me, miss me and I have not been able to meet them. Not be there for them. Mentally, it has been one of the hardest seasons for me. But in the end, this team had a very good group, and we helped each other. That has been really helpful for me. And now that we have finally won the title, I can go back home happy.
Q: Who, according to you, was the toughest opposition you faced in this ISL season?
Juanan: (After thinking a little) ATK Mohun Bagan.
Q: You won the title with Bengaluru FC earlier and now with Hyderabad FC. Do either of them feel more special to you?
Juanan: Obviously, both the titles are very special. But if I had to give a special mention, I would say the one with Hyderabad FC. Because this has been a very difficult season, especially mentally. But with the help of my family and my teammates, we have been able to get through the season and win the title. So, I have a special place in my heart for this season and this title.
Q: You signed with Hyderabad FC on a one-year contract. You’ve obviously won the title and have now become a fan favourite. So can the fans expect you to return next season?
Juanan: I think right now, it’s time to enjoy the title and in the future we’ll see what happens.
12. Finally, a word for the fans…
Juanan: Enjoy the Indian Super League title. Obviously it’s a new team but keep enjoying and keep supporting. Next year we’ll hopefully win many more titles.