As the only teams to have lifted the ISL trophy, it’s fair to call Chennaiyin FC and ATK as the league’s heavyweights. And our expectations of them to offer a contest that would keep us on the edge of our seats wouldn’t be excessive. It was, hence, disappointing to watch the first-half of the game between these sides – one looking to get to the top of the table and the other desperate to rise from the bottom – that was bereft of entertainment. Then, in the first minute of the last half an hour, began the crescendo that culminated in a spectacular injury-time winner that took Chennaiyin FC’s to the top of league standings.
A game of contrasting halves
The commentator, towards the end of the first half called the contest between Chennaiyin FC and Atletico de Kolkata a “chess match.” He was probably referring to the strategies employed by both the managers to nullify the advances of the other side. But the first half was like a chess match also because of the lack of thrills on the pitch. There were four shots on goal in total – only three of them on target. Neither team came close to scoring a goal.
The second half, however, lavished excitement on the audience, more than making up for its drought in most of the first half.
Jaime Gavilan’s imaginative wall-pass to Inigo Calderon in the 64th minute deceived the visiting side and resulted in Chennaiyin’s first goal. Gavilan, after getting the ball back, crossed it to captain Henrique Sereno, who headed it to the side bar. The ball rebounded and reached Jeje Lalpekhlua, who bobbed his head to net his maiden goal of the season.
This goal ignited the next half an hour that played out like the burst of a 10000-wala firecracker. In that duration, the match saw four more goals, several chances, three substitutions, and two yellow cards. Compare this with the first half: four shots on goal and a yellow card.
Jeje: The right man on the right place at the right time
Before Thursday night, his form was a concern. He wasn’t visible enough on the pitch enough and highest rating in the ISL site had been 6.5. Against ATK, Jeje didn’t find the ball; it found him. Sometimes the best of the strikers create the illusion of goals seeking them.
He was the beginning and the end for Chennaiyin’s goal-scoring. When the home team’s fans were getting restless, when there was a desperate need to break the deadlock, when the game had to be brought to life, when Sereno’s header rebounded off the bar, he was there, at the doorstep of the ATK goal, to gently push the ball in with his head.
He was there again, when the time was running out, when Chennaiyin rued after conceding a 89th minute equaliser, when the team’s fans lost hopes of another goal in the game, when Inigo Calderon’s strike was feebly deflected by the ATK goalie, for the finishing touch. From an invisible man, Jeje suddenly became omnipresent.
“The winning goal was the best of the lot for me,” said his manager John Gregory, who, had predicted on the eve of the match that the Mizoram striker will score soon.
“I am glad for Jeje to shut everyone up,” Gregory added after the game.
The coach also explained the change in role for the 26-year-old striker as compared to his previous seasons under Marco Materazzi. “He was an out and out striker for Marco. We make him work a little bit harder which is not easy. He held the ball up well and he was rewarded.”
Jeje’s two goals will boost his confidence and that might improve Chennaiyin’s strength.
The long passes that fell short
136 of the 375 passes that Chennaiyin made against ATK were unsuccessful – and most of those failed, especially in the first half, when the team tried to make connections from behind the half-way line to the opposition’s box. On a few occasions, the strategy seemed effective – when Mailson Alves’ long-ball in the 20th minute found Jeje in the box before an unperturbed Tom Thorpe dispossessed him. But often, the long passes – like Bikramjit Singh’s launch from the middle of the pitch in the 33rd minute – found the wrong receiver.
Overall, however, Gregory and his boys will be happy to beat the defending champions and to top the points table. “We should take a lot of credit for our fight. We weren’t happy to accept one point, and the team pushed for the winner till the end,” the coach said after the game.