Dec 11, 2014

Zico, the ISL and ATK

Zico might have been a great footballer, but the White Pele is perhaps one of the best players not to have won a World Cup ever. Maybe that's why he considers qualifying to the semi finals of the ISL as one of the greatest moments of his career. It's commendable how he has engineered the uphill task after a poor start by FC Goa to the tournament.

The moment I entered the Salt Lake Stadium, I knew the crowd wasn't going to let Zico go away with a victory, a result that would eliminate the home team Atletico de Kolkata out of the tournament. As the starting XI was being announced, the stadium cheered every name. The presence of 36 year old marquee signing Luis Garcia on the bench, raised doubts on his fitness, but Kolkata seemed to go with whatever they had.

After the first few matches, Kolkata were top of the table. Injury to few key players like Cavin Lobo, and Fikru losing his form as the season progressed led to a string of draws and Kolkata were steadily pushed below. The last game required a win or a draw or a one-goal loss with over 5 goals to ensure that they progressed at the expense of the Delhi Dynamos (Alas, no Del Piero in the semis!)

Goa made 9 changes to their starting XI and it was apparent that Zico wanted to rest his important players. The FC Goa players looked fresh, but it was Kolkata who created chance after chance. Lacking the finishing touches to their hard work, FC Goa's Elano scored with the first real chance for his team.

Fikru was having a bad game. Mistiming runs, getting offside at the wrong time, losing possession unnecessarily and missing chances - everyone in the stadium seemed to be disappointed the moment he had the ball. Goa were playing the passing game and looked very comfortable going forward. The Kolkata crowd consists of common people, but everyone seems to be a self proclaimed football pundit (even I am guilty of the same!) If the crowd had their way, they would substitute even my grandmother for Fikru considering the chances that he had missed.

Kolkata's midfield seemed to be absent. Even after Garcia came on after half time, the one thing that every Kolkata player seemed to do was look for the long ball. Fikru is no Drogba - he doesn't have the pace to bully defenders, nor did he seem to go through them without the linesman raising his flag for offside. Until the 66th minute.

Fikru finally made a perfect run into the box, but was unlucky as his shot came off the post. That certainly didn't discourage him as he make timed another run perfectly, this time, only to be brought down by Goa defender Bruno Pinheiro. The referee pointed to the spot and gave marching orders to Bruno as the second largest stadium in the world came to life as if Kolkata had already won the trophy.

Bruno was one of the regulars in the Goa squad and the red meant that he would miss the semi finals (which was most probably going to be against Kolkata!) Fikru, with a check in his run, sent the goalkeeper the wrong way to level the scores. As it stood, Kolkata were going through. It was surprising that they didn't press on to seal the qualification even after Goa were reduced to 10 men.

Zico and Bruno have both come out to complain about the artificial turf at the Salt Lake Stadium, but hey, weren't the opposition also playing in the same conditions? And do you remember what happened during the reverse fixture?

Pires gets a special mention. Prior to the red, he was the prime orchestrator of the Goa midfield machine. At 41, although he was struggling to chase the long balls, his flashes of brilliance and passing consistency reminds you of the days of the Invincibles. Perhaps the Andrea Pirlo-esqe look makes him look a bit more intimidating!

The semi finals are going to be played Champions League style - over two legs - home and away. The first leg of the semi final is at the Salt Lake stadium on Sunday (already booked tickets for that!) I know a full strength yet tired ATK side struggled to get a draw against a weaker FC Goa team, but it's football. If Goa turned it around after their first few matches, why can't Kolkata do it in the semis? They could still suffer huge losses over the two legs, but anything is possible. Remember that Fernando Torres goal against Barcelona?

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