Before the semi-finals of the Super Cup, ATK had scored the most number of goals (7), joint-top with FC Goa. Chennaiyin, on the other hand, were facing Steve Coppell’s men after staging a comeback victory over NorthEast United where Anirudh Thapa had a goal and an assist.
On Wednesday, Thapa once again ran the show as the Chennaiyin FC stamped their ticket to the final of the Super Cup, following a comprehensive 2-0 win over ATK in the semis.
Though he might have not replicated the same heights this year as he did during their 2017-18’ title-winning season, time and again, Thapa has shown why he remains such a key element in coach John Gregory’s set-up with an impressive ability to adapt to multiple roles when called upon.
In a surprise move on Wednesday, the youngster was deployed on the flanks and he made most of the opportunity as Chennaiyin lined up with a 4-2-3-1 formation.
With two defensive midfielders Christopher Herd and Dhanpal Ganesh patrolling the midfield, Thapa was given extra license to attack and Chennaiyin asserted their dominance, enjoying a large chunk of possession in the first half.
He regularly interchanged positions with fellow winger Gregory Nelson on multiple occasions, to baffle the opposition markers. Not only that, he lured defenders towards him that opened up spaces for his teammates on the overlap.
That saw Chennaiyin fire multiple crosses in the box but the finishing touch was clearly missing.
On the other hand, Raphael Augusto kept pulling the strings in the middle as he dropped deep to pump through balls in the final third.
When Chennaiyin’s crosses had failed to find the desired target, it was a piece of magic by Thapa that broke the deadlock shortly after the break.
Free on the left, he deceived John Johnson with a feint before turning and outpacing Pritam Kotal to ping in a cross for CK Vineeth to finally head home.
Herd and Ganesh nullified the threat of playmaker Manuel Lanzarote and ATK shored up the attack, pushing bodies forward only to leave the defense exposed. And as Coppell would mention, it played a big part.
“I knew it would be a really close game. They had a little bit more size in midfield than we anticipated. I thought they would either play [Dhanpal] Ganesh or [Christopher] Herd. When I saw them start with both, I knew that it would make it a little bit more difficult for Manuel Lanzarote and Edu Garcia. And that proved to be the case. We didn’t get a flow in our play,” he said after the game.
The assault continued and the diminutive midfielder was at the forefront of it. Thapa’s clever link-up play with Nelson caught the ATK defence off guard and Chennaiyin extended their lead.
Eight minutes after setting up a goal himself, Thapa slotted home past goalkeeper Debjit Majumder from close range and that allowed Chennaiyin to ease into the game.
Even though the the men in blue sat back to defend their two-goal cushion, Thapa was at it again, tracking back and intercepting balls when his side were pushed on the back foot. Although ATK registered 14 shots by then end of the game, they had failed to convert even a single one.
Thapa had once again put on a match-winning display, albeit, in a slightly different role.
“Anirudh Thapa here is versatile. He knows what responsibilities each position brings. He’s even played up front with the national team. So it’s great to be a part of his development. He is bright enough to do the job,” Gregory said after the match.
After a dismal ISL season, Chennaiyin has now witnessed an upturn in fortunes, going unbeaten in six games during the AFC Cup Qualifiers and Super Cup. But as Gregory puts it, this all would mean nothing if they had nothing to claim.
“It helps a bit psychologically to have improved after such a poor ISL season. We have done well and reached the final but we haven’t achieved anything yet. We still don’t have a trophy to show for it yet,” the Englishman added.