Eight days after becoming the first Indian club to play a group stage game in the AFC Champions League and gaining their first ever point in the same game, FC Goa notched another first as skipper Edu Bedia headed in their first goal on the continental stage and for a very brief moment, it felt as though the fairy tale could go on a bit longer. But within the next 10 minutes, their opponents, Perspolis of Iran, had turned it around and maintained the scoreline till the end of the game to hand Goa their first defeat in the competition.
After extremely creditable draws against Al Rayyan and Al Wahda, it would have been forgivable if some felt bullish about the Indian Super League side's chances against the runners-up of the previous edition. But the final score of 2-1 flattered Goa who were completely outplayed by the slick passing and movement of the Iranian champions. Persepolis changed the tempo of the game at their will, slowing it down to walking pace at one point before hurtling through the gears and bearing down on the FC Goa goal in a matter of seconds.
Having named unchanged line-ups for the first two games, Goa coach Juan Ferrando made two changes, bringing in Adil Khan and Saviour Gama for Ishan Pandita and the suspended Alex Romario, resulting in a defensive system that would have made Jose Mourinho proud. Gama, a left-back by trade, played as a defensive winger on the left ahead of Sanson Pereira. Adil was deployed as a screen in front of the back four to allow Glan Martins and Edu to take up central positions just in front of him. Brandon took up a position on the wide right with Jorge Ortiz leading the line.
Persepolis went with their usual gung-ho 4-2-2-2 formation, with the wide players Mehdi Torabi and Siamak Nemati tucking in to supply creativity and allowing the full-backs to overlap. The left-back Vahid Amiri found a lot of joy down his flank, popping up in positions in and around the Goa penalty and even forcing keeper Dheeraj Singh into a save after going through on goal. With an average age of almost 30, this was a battle-hardened side led by the 39-year-old centre-back Jalal Hosseini whose headed goal proved to be the winning one.
Having stuck to their principles in the first two games, Goa maintained their playing style of building from the back and keeping the ball on the ground as much as possible. One such foray into the opposition half resulted in Edu Bedia winning a free-kick. From the resulting set-piece, the Spaniard got on the end of a superb delivery by Brandon to nod home the opening goal of the game. Usually, it is Edu who takes these free-kicks but the role reversal worked perfectly for Goa here. A historic goal like that deserved delirious celebrations but the Gaurs kept it to a minimum considering the strength of their opponents and the fact that there were still about 80 minutes left to play.
A few minutes later, those two combined again with Edu carrying the ball up the field and setting up Brandon to double their lead and send Goa into dreamland but Persepolis goalkeeper Hamed Lak had other ideas and he threw out a strong arm to block the shot. This was just the encouragement the Iranians needed as they regained their composure and started probing the Goan defence. It paid off immediately as James Donachie was adjudged to have fouled Isa Alkasir and the referee awarded a penalty kick. Defender Mohammed Kanani had initially picked up the ball to take the spot kick but Torabi took it off him and duly converted to draw the match level.
Last season's Champions League runners-up kept their foot on the pedal and started forcing the Goa players into errors, especially Adil Khan, who misplaced a couple of passes one of which led to a corner that Persepolis took full advantage of. In the 24th minute, Dheeraj came out and flapped at thin air but the ball sailed away to the flank. Torabi retrieved it and his cross to the back post found the veteran Hosseini who headed it in. Adil paid the price as he was substituted for the young midfielder Amarjit Singh. As the wave of attacks by the Iranians continued, the referee awarded another penalty when Ivan Gonzalez made a late challenge on Shahriar. This time, Kanani did step forward to take the kick but his shot was saved by Dheeraj to keep the score at 2-1.
For the second half, Ferrando brought on forward Devendra Murgaonkar for Gama and around the hour mark, Ishan Pandita and Princeton Rebello also came on for Brandon and Martins. On paper, these looked like brave moves to try and gain a point but by this time, with all the substitutions, Persepolis had slowed the game down and were happy to keep the ball moving in their own half. They maintained this tempo until the end of the game showing their experience in game management as they made it three wins out of three.
The return of Rebello would have encouraged Ferrando, especially as captain Edu seems to be a major doubt after suffering an injury and being replaced by Redeem Tlang who also got some valuable minutes on board. Defender Gonzalez was another who limped out after the match had ended and the Gaurs will be hoping these two key players are fit to face the Iranians again, in the reverse fixture on Friday.