Odisha FC club handily beat Gokulam Kerala FC 3-1 in the Hero Club Playoffs to seal a spot in the AFC Cup 2023-24 Group Stage on Saturday, April 29, 2023. The result has given the team, who finished sixth in the Hero Indian Super League, a spot in Asian competition, on the back of an outstanding two weeks at the fag end of the season.
While in the league, they, quite like their opponents today, played in fits and starts, never really putting together a good enough run of form to really challenge for the title, over the last two weeks they have done just that. Insofar as Aprils go, Odisha have enjoyed a spring unlike any other. They have laid siege to Kozhikode and now having won the Hero Super Cup, put a continental cherry on a brilliant cake.
It didn't take long for them to do so either, with Odisha stamping their authority on the game right from the referee's whistle. They were quicker on the ball and even more authoritative without it. The first chance, ironically though, didn't fall their way. Gokulam, who played most of the game as a counter-attacking unit, came at them through a Thahir Zaman corner, perfectly curled for Aminou Bouba in the six-yard area. The Cameroonian put his header high and wide.
Very soon Gokulam were made to pay for their errors, in more ways than one. In the 18th minute from a seemingly innocuous throw-in on the left touchline, Nandha Kumar dummied, Victor Romero spun and Diego Mauricio was through one-on-one. The Brazilian finished to notch his 20th goal in all competitions and give Odisha the lead. It was a goal that was built on simplicity, but also exposed a Gokulam defence that had gone to bed.
Suddenly Odisha started running riot, Mauricio, Mawihmingthanga and Romero combining to create a host of opportunities and keep the Gokulam defence on their toes. Romero came closest just before the half hour mark, curling a free kick from a narrow angle on the left onto the crossbar.
In the 31st minute, Mauricio got his second, dribbling but also bulldozing his way through Gokulam's left side to double the lead. The second woke up Gokulam, and roused them from their inept slumber into something resembling passing football. Suddenly Zaman and Sergio Mendigutxia were playing combinations and throwing Odisha's comfortable defence off their game. When the goal arrived in the 36th minute, it came off the head of Farshad Noor, Zaman doing all the work on the right before delivering a perfect cross home.
Within minutes Zaman himself had a chance to equalise, arriving perfectly to head a cross from the left. His attempt though was high. To Odisha's relief, half time arrived just as the game's momentum had shifted, giving them a chance to breathe and reset.
And reset they did, surging into halftime imperious again. Almost immediately, Romero conjured up another chance, and again, the frame of the goal proved to be his undoing, the post denying him this time.
It wouldn't matter. Pawan Kumar needlessly tugged on and brought down Diego Mauricio on the edge of the box in the 52nd minute, giving Odisha a penalty and a chance to restore their two-goal cushion. Mauricio didn't miss it. His 22nd goal of the season was enough for Odisha to regain momentum and see the game out. An April filled with joy will see them debut in Asia now.