With little less than an hour to go for kickoff at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai on Tuesday, in the second leg of the Indian Super League semi-final between Chennaiyin FC and FC Goa, the stands were only slowly filling in. The noise in the stadium, however, was already on the rise. As the announcer started reading out the names of the Goa starting lineup, a few groans and boos emerged but quietly died down. The cheers started in full vein when the home team lineup was being read out.
And it hit crescendo for one name: Jeje Lalpekhlua, the man who would bring the roof down at the Marina Arena twice on the night, to put his team through to the final of the ISL.
There was little doubt as to who the outright home favourite was. Local boy Dhanpal Ganesh (“He’s one of our own... he’s one of our own... Dhanpal Ganesh, he’s one of our own!”) and Brazilian Raphael Augusto come close, but not quite the same extent as Jeje. The Indian forward, however, came into this game with question marks over his form. Six games without a goal had raised concern; one that was brushed aside by coach John Gregory in the pre-match press conference; one that seemingly didn’t register with the fans as they cheered their talisman on at every possible opportunity.
Right behind their man
The fact that the crowd was right behind Jeje was most evident in the 21st minute of the match. Until that point in the game, it was all FC Goa. They passed the ball with purpose, they cut open the CFC defence at will, they strutted around the pitch dictating terms. Goa coach Sergio Lobera described it the best football his team has played all season - given the quality of attacking football the Gaurs have displayed over the campaign, that was quite the endorsement. In those early stages, Jeje (much like rest of his team) was a bystander on the pitch.
And then came a free kick from the right flank, that Gregory Nelson floated in. The cross found Jeje unmarked between two defenders, not more than three yards away from goal. He could only head it over. He mistimed his jump, he misdirected the header and the goalkeeper was not troubled. The immediate reaction from the crowd, unsurprisingly, was a collective “ooooh!” but that quickly made way for “JEJE! JEJE! JEJE!”
If there was any chance they could help their star player find his goal-scoring touch again, the crowd was determined to chip in.
And to his credit, Jeje repaid the faith in no time. Less than five minutes after that glaring miss, the 27-year-old found himself unmarked again, this time for a cross from the left flank and neatly glanced the ball into the net and brought out the familiar celebratory pose.
Cue: Delirium in the stands.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the goal changed the complexion of the match. Lobera was at pain to explain in the post-match press conference that his team was much more superior, much more skilful, much more adept at creating chances in the opening 25 minutes - but to concede a goal out of the blue in the 26th minute, and make it worse in the 29th minute, was a jolt the Gaurs didn’t recover from. And Jeje was instrumental in the second goal as well, when one of his many tireless runs down the channels, earned his side a free kick - which was nodded in by Ganesh.
Within the space of three minutes, Jeje stepped up for his coach, for his team and for his fans - putting the tie to bed. From then on, it was all about game management for Gregory’s well-oiled defensive unit and they achieved just that. In the rest of the match, Jeje continued to hug the half-way line on the shoulders of the last defenders, making himself available as an outlet. He continued to make runs down either flanks, when his midfield fed him aerial balls. He continued to keep the Goan defenders on high alert even when the visitors were piling forward. And that effort paid off at the end as he captialised on a defensive lapse to slot past Naveen Kumar in Goa’s goal for the second time in the night in the 90th minute and seal the deal for the team.
The head coach, when asked about Jeje’s return to form, was clear-cut in his response.
“What Jeje does for my team can sometimes be a very lonely job (as a lone striker). If you don’t score, you sort of don’t get the recognition that you even played the game. But I have seen what he brings to my side. He has always worked very, very hard. He ran himself into the ground in the first leg and you could see that today as well. It was pointed out that he has not scored for a while but I supported him through that by just playing him every match. That’s how I could confirm to him that he is still important for the team. And I did tell him before the game that he would get two today... (smiles) ”— Chennaiyin FC coach John Gregory
This is what the star players bring to the table in a team game - an ability to step up and deliver as an individual, and help pull together a collective win.
And, as evidenced by few enthusiastic fans jumping past security guards to get a selfie with their main man, Jeje repaid the faith of his manager and his adoring fans in some style.
Next stop: Sree Kanteerava Stadium, for the ISL final against Bengaluru FC.