When Karim Bencherifa took over the reigns of Salgaocar halfway through the 2009-10 I–League season, Salgaocar were fighting relegation and his main job was to ensure survival. He not only ensured survival, but made sure that Salgaocar finished the campaign in top half of the league.

At the start of the 2010-11 season, looking at all the squads, not many would have expected Salgaocar to finish in the top 3. After their poor performance in the Federation Cup, where they were ousted in the first round and had to digest a 1-6 pounding at the hands of Mohun Bagan, Salgaocar were at best considered as a mid table team, but as per Bencherifa’s own admission, they were looking to finish in the top 3. There were no national players in the squad. The squad had no big names, except for Yakubu and Luciano Sabrosa. Theses two players were expected to lead the team.

A Breezy Start And Then A Stumble:

Salgaocar got off to a great start in the league, winning their first four matches and being level on points at the top with East Bengal. A consistent performer in these four matches was Japanese midfielder Ryuiji Seuoka, who with 5 goals in 4 matches announced himself as a key player in Bencherifa’s plans. The start was impressive; however the big tests were yet to come. Two consecutive losses in the next two matches to East Bengal and Pune FC gave the team a reminder that the I-League is not a cake walk and that every point has to be fought for.

Voted as the best coach in Indian Football for last season

The Recovery Path:

Salgaocar recovered well after these two losses, with victories over Churchill Brothers and Dempo along the way and were always a close second to East Bengal till they took the lead in the I-League at the end of the 14th Round. Salgaocar maintained their lead picking up victories over the weaker teams with consistency and with six matches remaining they were in the driver’s seat to pick up their second national league crown, after a gap of 12 long years.

The Finishing Hurdle:

A loss in their next match against Air India meant that East Bengal and Dempo now had a sniff at the title with both teams just two points behind Salgaocar with equal matches played and both teams having a game against Salgaocar. Salgaocar lost to Dempo, but Dempo lost their match against East Bengal to let go of their slight advantage. The match against East Bengal turned out to be the virtual title decider.

East Bengal were leading 2 – 0 against Salgaocar with the title in their sights if they held on to the lead, however a magnificent comeback by Salgaocar meant that East Bengal would lose that match 3 – 2 . East Bengal then lost their next match to Churchill Brothers. The slip ups by Dempo and East Bengal ensured that a draw for Salgaocar in their last match against relegation threatened JCT would hand them over the I- League title. Salgaocar finished off the formalities by defeating JCT 2 – 0 to eventually win the I–League crown with a five point margin over their nearest rivals East Bengal.

The Secret Behind This Success:

So what turned Salgaocar’s fortunes round this season? Starting from the top, the management’s full trust in the coaching staff. Unlike a few of the other top clubs in India where the players on the field are often decided by the management, Karim Bencherifa had control of proceedings on the pitch and this won over the confidence of his players. Salgaocar’s youth system is also one of the best in the country with proof being that they have won the Manchester United Under 15 Premier Cup twice in the past three years. Players like Gilbert Oliveira, Cajetan Fernandes, Anthony Barbosa and Francis Fernandes all have been the stand-out performers for the Goan Greens and incidentally all of them are products of the club’s youth system.

Key players like Luciano managed a relatively inexperienced defence, with the team ending up with 11 clean sheets. Yakubu and Seuoka, who interchanged positions between the forward line and the midfield, ably guided the young products of the Salgaocar youth system. The team team played an entertaining brand of football, managed to score 58 goals in the season and failing to score only in thrice matches. Only Dempo managed to score more goals – thanks mainly to their 14 – 0 drubbing of Air India.

One of the most unexpected champions in history of I-League

The Path Ahead:

Looking forward to next season, Salgaocar has made a few signings to strengthen their squad. Edeh Chidi will be replacing Yakubu who will be leaving Salgaocar. The midfield has also been strengthened by the signings of Mehrajuddin and Ishfaq. They have also roped in promising youngsters from Sesa Goa and JCT. However the most important thing to note is that Salgaocar will be retaining the core of the team which just won the I-league. This will be the most important decision. In recent times teams like Dempo, in Indian football and Barcelona, in European football, have garnered success maily due to having the core team consistent season after season. Salgaocar’s management and coaching staff has reposed their faith in the players which have just won the I-League and it’s up to the players now to repeat their excellent performance next season.

Best Player: Ryuji Sueoka

The Japanese had a great understanding with Yakubu, playing in various positions from a striker, to a supporting striker to a midfielder. His ability to play in different positions and his tally of 18 goals making him the third highest scorer of the I-league behind Ranty and Odafa is what makes him Salgaocar’s player of the season.

Best Striker: Yusuf Yakubu

Yakubu may not have been the top scorer this season, however his off the ball running, creation of space and assists gave the other players scoring opportunities. The Ghanaian also played a great mentor’s role to instill confidence and guide the young academy products.

Best Midfielder(s)

Gilbert Oliveira, Cajetan Fernandes, Anthony Barboza and Francis Fernandes

The young quartet of Gilbert Oliveira,Cajetan Fernandes, Anthony Barbosa and Francis Fernandes had an excellent I-League and it would be unjust to pick only one over the others.

Best Defender: Luciano Sabrosa

The captain of the team, veteran Brazilian Luciano, led the young and inexperienced Salgaocar defenders in this campaign by example. By the end of the season, they had conceded only 27 goals and had 11 clean sheets, a statistic which only East Bengal managed to better.

Best Game: Salgaocar 5 – 0 Indian Arrows

Salgaocar’s 5–0 trashing of the young Indian Arrows team had to be their best performance of the season. Domination in the mid field and clinical finishing by Yakubu and Seuoka in front of goal meant that Indian Arrows suffered one of their worst defeats of the season.

Worst Game: Salgaocar 1 – 3 Mohun Bagan

Against the bigger teams, Salgaocar’s defence looked the weakest in the first 20 minutes, and the defeat to Mohun Bagan highlighted this. Playing at home , they were 3 – 0 down in the first 25 minutes with the midfield almost non-existent. Salgaocar scored a late consolation goal, but this was by for their worst performance of the season.

~ Ashley Furtado