Just about a year ago when Chennai City FC faced Minerva Punjab in their last league encounter of the 2017-18 season, they were seeking a win to avoid relegation and had managed to save the day with a 2-1 win over the eventual champions.
On 9 March, 12 months later, the two clubs faced each other in the final round of the 2018-19 season with Chennai City requiring a win to clinch the title.
The club, with a limited budget that made them move to Coimbatore (500km away from the Tamil Nadu capital to save cost), had thrown away a golden chance to win the crown without the tension of the final day. A 3-2 defeat against Churchill Brothers in Goa might have come back to haunt them, in another season.
That loss had handed East Bengal a shot at the title and when Minerva Punjab scored three minutes from the kick off, a Chennai City fan would have left wondering whether the season was about to unravel.
But the Akbar Nawas-coached outfit kept their composure and fought back to win 3-1 to probably become the last I-League champions as the Indian Super League is likely to add two more teams and the All India Football Federation thinking of having just one top-division league in the country.
But the talk about the future is best left for another day. For now, Chennai City FC should bask in the glory of an incredible season built on a shoe-string budget and a game plan focused on keeping possession and fighting as a unit.
“All credit to the players. They showed their character today. They helped each other and they delivered,” said Singaporean coach Nawas after the match.
“Everything was going against us. (Roberto) Eslava getting injured and then an early goal, it became very difficult. The way we played in the second half it shows our character. To be honest, I was happy that we were a goal down because I was pretty sure we could come back,” he said.
For long periods in the first half, Chennai had seemed frustrated, and Pedro Manzi, their top scorer, received a yellow for an ill-tempered shove but the chances had been piling up. Chennai had 10 shots, but were yet to open the scoring.
There were no final twists though. Chennai City had stuck to Akbar Nawas’ plan and scored three in the second half.
While East Bengal did their bit in Kozhikode with a late winner to put pressure on Chennai City, Nawas’ men ensured that they kept their heads.
The CCFC’s midfield stepped up their game in the second half and a reckless handball gave Manzi the chance to equalise. He duly dispatched the spot-kick, going joint-top of the Golden Boot race, with 21 goals.
He missed a sitter thereafter but the hosts were turning on the screws and two well-worked corner routines gave Gaurav Bora the goals Chennai City deserved, to seal a nervy ending.
The two wins on the final day were indicative of how Chennai City and East Bengal played during the season. Chennai’s triumph was clinical, demonstrative of their abilities on and off the ball and their dominance. Never once did it seem like they would lose their grip on the I-League title despite conceding early.
East Bengal huffed and puffed their way through the final day and at times, seemed to forget they were in a title race. It hasn’t been the smoothest of campaigns and they’ve had the look of a team just doing enough to stay in the race, forging a similar act on the final day.
In the aftermath of the victory, Nawas said, “I hope we are there next season. It is not for me to comment. I think there should be a unified league with 20 teams. The national team would benefit more. Every professional player should play at least 45 games a season.”
The ex-Tampines Rovers coach’s request for an inclusive league may go in vain as news trickled through that East Bengal have planned to pick up the bid documents for next year’s Indian Super League.
With Indian football authorities looking to the two Kolkata giants to complete the set of top league clubs, it is left to clubs like Chennai City to ponder about the future of the league and the course taken by the one league system next season.
As things stand, Chennai City might well go down in history as the I-League’s last champions. In the company of recent victors such as Minerva Punjab and Aizawl, Chennai City will hope to stake a rightful claim in next year’s top division.