FC Goa custodian Dheeraj Singh’s efforts against Al Rayyan under the sticks got due recognition as the young custodian has been named in the best XI of AFC Champions League matchday one by the AFC (Asian Football Confederation).
This feat is commendable under any circumstances but given that Dheeraj was a benchwarmer during the first phase of the 2020-21 season with ATK Mohun Bagan, this achievement assumes more significance.
In fact, he had played just once in 2020. That would have certainly dented the confidence of a keeper who has been always been regarded as a player with huge potential since his performance in the FIFA U17 World Cup in 2017 and subsequently with Indian Arrows and Kerala Blasters.
The lack of opportunities under Antonio Habas forced Dheeraj to make a move in the January transfer window and join FC Goa on a three-year deal. Goa’s then first-choice keeper Mohammad Nawaz fell out of favour with coach Juan Ferrando and the Manipuri pounced on the opportunity.
In nine appearances, he made 16 saves and kept two clean sheets for FC Goa, before bowing out to eventual champions Mumbai City FC in the semi-finals of the Indian Super League (ISL).
8⃣ different clubs represented 👏
— #ACL2021 (@TheAFCCL) April 16, 2021
The AIFF academy cadet has carried his form to the AFC Champions League as well. It was a challenge of the highest order to face Qatari giants Al Rayyan in your very first AFC Champions League game. The Laurent Blanc managed outfit has the likes of Yacine Brahimi, who has played in the UEFA Champions League and La Liga, and tested Dheeraj right from the first whistle.
Within the first 10 minutes, Dheeraj was called into action a couple of times and he knew that it was going to be a long 90 minutes. And the keeper stood his ground and proved his mettle.
In a one-on-one situation with Naif Alhadhrami, he came out of his line at the right time and stifled the opportunity to keep the scoreline unchanged. An early goal for the visitors could have completely changed the complexion of the match, but his timely intervention ensured that was not the case.
In the dying embers of the game, Blanc’s troops threw everything they had in their armoury to break the deadlock but Goa’s defence held the fort.
“I prepared myself in a different way. During ISL, I used to watch the videos of other teams. But for the last match, I just watched the set pieces and I didn’t go through the individual clips because I wanted to play my natural game. I wanted to prepare for every situation that could come,” he told AIFF after the match.
But the journey has just begun. It is time to keep the head down and work tirelessly for the upcoming matches. A lot rests on Dheeraj’s shoulders and the last line of defence can hardly afford to put a foot wrong, especially against stronger outfits like Al Wahda and ACL runners-up Persepolis.