Juan Ferrando had warned his FC Goa players about the quality, pace and no-way-can-you-take-three-touches-on-the-ball intensity of Al Rayyan, his team's opponents in their AFC Champions League debut. Ferrando had spent the last month partly recovering from COVID-19, but mostly preparing his squad for the "opportunity of their lifetimes". They had drills, training sessions that ran late and incessant video analysis. But there's nothing like the real thing.
For the first 10 minutes, Goa looked like they didn't know what had hit them. It was jarring to see a team we are so used to seeing stroke the ball comfortably around in the ISL panic so much every time the little round thing went near them. Al Rayyan sensed this. They hurried and scared the men in orange into passes that were meant for no one. They created chances. They pushed the game deep into the Goan defensive third.
And then, things just clicked.
A little before the 10-minute mark, Goa remembered the hard yards they'd already put in. They remembered that they were on a 15-game unbeaten streak. That, for all the talk of them being the whipping boys of the group, they were a bunch of pretty decent footballers. The passing out of the back slowly improved.
Edu Bedia started getting on the ball more and so did Brandon Fernandes -- Goa's two best players calming things down, increasing the average accuracy of the team's passing. Glan Martins started snapping into tackles, while Seriton Fernandes joined him in this quest to unsettle any opponent in the vicinity. Sanson Pereira was quietly effective on the left, James Donachie and Ivan Gonzalez solid in the middle. Jorge Ortiz was a constant outlet, running his team out of tight corners on more than one occasion. So was Alexander Romario Jesuraj on the opposite flank.
As the game wore on, it became pretty evident why Ferrando had made the choices he had -- dropping top-scorer Igor Angulo and chief playmaker Alberto Noguera -- to satisfy the AFC foreigner limit. The best qualities of each of the selected foreigners were on show on the night.
Ostensibly a 4-2-3-1, Goa morphed into a 4-1-4-1 for large periods, Bedia connecting midfield and defence with his calmness, and young Ishan Pandita the lone man up top. Pandita struggled to get into the game -- with most of the action concentrated in the middle or at Goa's end -- but there were glimpses, in his off-the-ball movement, of what makes him such an exciting talent.
Ferrando had spent much of the build-up to the match talking about the gulf in class, the level-up that this competition represented. Despite Goa's clear stepping up of their game, there were still flashes when those points were painfully obvious. The vast majority of those moments were supplied by Yacine Brahimi. He was the best player there, at times looking like a lone figure skater on a rink filled with plastic cones, his feet -- and brain -- moving faster than anyone on the pitch.
But Goa never let those moments underline their performance, never let them snowball into tangible phases of play that would harm them.
Every time Brahimi beat someone in orange, another would materialise in front of him, throwing themselves into a block or slamming into a challenge. And even if he, or any other Al Rayyan player, worked their way past the orange wall, young Dheeraj Singh was in a mood to show off his stunning reflexes.
For 90 minutes, Goa stood toe-to-toe with a palpably superior footballing unit. Even when they looked like they had barely enough energy to stand straight, they never lay down. They broke up play well, played well out of the back, defended deep and with urgency when called upon. The fact that they never, at any point, resorted to randomly hoofing the ball forward speaks to the strength of the coaching, and the team's belief in the 'plan'.
Goa's success on Wednesday night was down to the collective.
Now, make no mistake that this 0-0 result screams success. There are five more games in the group stages and not even the most diehard Goa fans would expect anything more than a fourth-place finish, but there is comfort in knowing that this team aren't going to be pushovers.
That's why you'll hear the overused phrase 'the good of Indian football' bandied around for the next few days. Why a goalless draw will be celebrated with fervour across the land, cutting across club loyalties. Why this innocuous-looking result is so important in the grand scheme of things.
For FC Goa, it was just a point. For Indian football, it was a step, however small, toward gaining continental respect.