Second-half substitute Sahil Tavora turned out to be the unlikely hero in what was effectively a rematch of the 2015 ISL final, as Chennayin FC and FC Goa produced a match of exceptional skill, pace and drama, with Goa winning 5-4 to sign off both teams' 2016 campaign at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Margao on Thursday.
The nine goals scored in this match were an ISL record for all seasons, and it also meant Goa snapped a sequence of three successive wins for Chennaiyin in Goa. Goa also avenged a 2-0 defeat when these teams met earlier in the season in Chennai.
It is the first time in three editions of the ISL that neither side will be seen in the last four, and a performance like this will only make both head coaches, Goa's Zico and Marco Materazzi of Chennaiyin, rue the fact that they couldn't play in a similar way more often this season.
Goa had worked their socks off to overturn a 3-2 deficit from half-time, but almost saw all of their hard work undone by a momentary lapse of concentration from defender Raju Gaikwad, who rose to meet the ball inside the Goa box with his hand. The resultant penalty was buried into the net by Chennai's marquee player John Arne Riise, who had come on as a substitute for Thoi Singh.
In the fifth minute of added time, Tavora, who had earlier been introduced after half-time by Zico, found himself with space to run into on the left flank, and he took on Abhishek Das at right-back. When it appeared he would look to cross the ball, Tavora lined it up on his right foot and curled the ball, which perfectly passed Karanjit Singh in the Chennaiyin goal, to cap off a remarkable match worthy of a bigger occasion.
Earlier, Zico fielded close to his strongest starting eleven, including a three-man back-line comprising Rafael Dumas, Gregory Arnolin and Raju. Romeo Fernandes and Mandar Rao Desai played wide across the wings, while Jofre Gonzalez slotted in behind the strike pair of Rafael Coelho and Robin Singh.
Chennaiyin fielded as many as eight Indians in their starting lineup, which included three teenagers. While 18-year-old Jerry Lalrinzuala slotted in at left-back, Materazzi played 19-year-old Daniel Lalhimpuia in the hole behind Dudu Omagbemi, and also handed an ISL debut to Daniel's India Under-19 team-mate Anirudh Thapa.
The match began at a breathless pace, and Chennaiyin were given the first opening when Richarlyson brought Thapa down just ahead of the Goan penalty box. Jerry would then take the perfect free-kick in the fourth minute, curling the ball around the wall with his left foot and bending it into the unguarded part of Laxmikant Kattimani's net, thus bringing up the 125th goal of the season.
Two minutes later, however, Coelho received an incisive pass from Jofre, and ran into the space vacated by a high Chennaiyin backline to slot the ball past Karanjit. He would be shown a yellow card for revealing a message in solidarity with Brazilian club Chapecoense written across the vest underneath his jersey.
Chennaiyin kept going at their opponents, and could have had a second goal in the 10th minute when Dudu found himself in space and his left-footed shot beat Kattimani but not the woodwork. The visitors were rewarded for their industry in the 14th minute, as Thoi's pass from the right after being set up by Daniel found its way to Thapa ghosting in from the left flank. His shot took a deflection off Arnolin, and the own goal was credited to the Goa central defender.
Goa made another comeback in the 20th minute, as Coelho was deemed to have been brought down inside the Chennaiyin box by Harmanjot Khabra, and Jofre stepped up to bury the penalty low to the left of Karanjit.
A tie that had produced three goals in the last five minutes the last time it was played in Goa, had produced four this time inside the first 21 minutes.
Chennaiyin did not take long to reclaim the lead, as Daniel played an inch-perfect ball through for Dudu, who dribbled past Kattimani to pass the ball home for his fifth goal of the year. Goa would then create a couple of half-chances with balls played through from the flanks for their strike pair, but on both occasions Coelho and Robin were beaten to the ball by a vigilant Karanjit.
Chennaiyin were distinctly unlucky not to increase their lead in the 42nd minute, when a sizzling passage of play saw their young players run rings around the Goa defence. Thapa's diagonal run saw him round up the goalkeeper, but seeing defenders between himself and the goal he back-heeled to Dudu, who squared the ball to an unmarked Daniel. Daniel's powerful shot was saved off the line by Arnolin.
Zico tried to restore some balance to his side by replacing Mandar with Tavora in the second half, and it helped Goa pressure the Chennaiyin defence enough to create some early penetration. However, Bernard Mendy led the backline well, with Karanjit coming out of his line to prevent potential damage when one pass was slipped through for Romeo in the 61st minute. Off the resultant counter, Daniel worked himself into some space down the left, before cutting a ball back for Siam Hanghal, whose shot was deflected for a corner.
Coelho was relentless with his runs at the Chennaiyin defence, even after his strike partner Robin was sacrificed for the defensive Sanjay Balmuchu, and the Brazilian would be instrumental in getting Goa back to 3-3 in the 68th minute; his run drew out the entire Chennaiyin backline, and his shot at goal took deflections off Eder Monteiro and Karanjit before landing in the path of an onrushing Tavora.
It got even better for Goa in the 76th minute, as Chennaiyin tried to play the offside trap against Coelho, who sprang it to burst into space and beat Karanjit in goal with a strong right-footer.
In the 83rd minute, Abhishek brought down substitute Julio Cesar on the left flank for Goa, and his subsequent free-kick was met by Coelho, but he missed out what could have been a deserving hat-trick when he failed to keep it on target.
It seemed at that moment that Goa might live to rue that missed chance, but in young Tavora, the Goans and Zico found their moment of redemption against the team that had denied them the ISL title at this very venue last December.