It took Chennaiyin FC 450 minutes to score their first goal in the 2019-20 Indian Super League season. That goal by Andre Schembri against Hyderabad FC ended their 768-minute drought in the competition, with their previous goal in the ISL dating back to last season in February, nine months earlier.
In the 768 minutes that followed that goal, the Super Machans scored 22 times. This stark contrast in their fortunes has been the story of their campaign, and perhaps the biggest narrative to emerge out of the ISL this season.
Although Chennaiyin’s first goal in this campaign came under former manager John Gregory, credit must be given to his successor Owen Coyle for masterminding one of the best comebacks in the competition’s history.
The revival story is yet to reach its climax and it could be a glorious one after Chennaiyin thumped FC Goa 4-1 in the first leg of the semi-final to put one leg in the final that few would have banked the Super Machans to reach.
“Obviously, we lacked confidence after the bad start,” club captain Lucian Goian told Scroll.in.
“We were not playing badly, we were creating chances but just couldn’t score. Our goal drought was so bad that it added a lot of pressure on our strikers at a point and hence it was difficult to get going as a team,” he added.
The Romanian defender had arrived in the mid-season break after three seasons with Mumbai City FC as part of a squad overhaul that saw the south Indian club bring in nine new players and let go ten previous ones.
“We had a lot of new players in our team,” Goian said.
“It took us some time to get used to each other and forge into a unit. Hence, in the first few games we couldn’t play as a team and that was the problem for us at the start,” he added.
Needed time to gel
The foreign core of the team that included Goian, Rafael Crivellaro, Andre Schembri and Nerijus Valskis were all making their debuts for Chennaiyin this season and there was no cohesiveness in the team.
Under Gregory, there was always a lot of uncertainty surrounding his future with him offering to resign after the first three matches of the season. Chennaiyin convinced him to stay on, but he largely cut a frustrated figure waiting to be pulled out of his misery.
After he was eventually relieved of his duties, the Super Machans had just four points from six matches. Thus, Coyle who came in to replace Gregory had a huge task on hand.
“When I came in, I realised that we had real quality in our ranks,” Coyle told Scroll.in.
“Both our foreign players and Indian players were really good and some of the youngsters in the team were hugely talented. So, we knew it was all about getting the players’ mindset right,” he added.
Coyle’s focus initially was to lift the pressure on his players caused by the constant poor results before his arrival.
“We tried to instill as much confidence as possible within the players and their mentality to go out and perform without worrying about making mistakes. And in hindsight, one can say it has worked,” the 53-year-old said.
On the pitch in terms of tactics and team selection, Coyle took his time to stamp his authority. In his first game in-charge of the club away to Jamshedpur, he named an unchanged team from the one picked by Gregory in his final game as a manager against Odisha FC.
In the next game, Coyle restored Schembri to the line-up, slotting him in the right hand side of their attack. Also in midfield, he brought in Germanpreet Singh to make space for that extra foreign player in attack.
Banking on Indian players
Having tasted success with a 3-1 win over Kerala Blasters, Coyle stuck to his tweaks in the next couple of games that ended in defeats. Facing a do-or-die situation, Coyle gambled with what seemed like a makeshift midfield pairing of Anirudh Thapa and Edwin Vanspaul who had been deployed at right back in the previous matches both under Coyle and Gregory.
“When we were faced with the prospect of needing someone to partner Thapa in midfield, Edwin stood out given his ability, maturity and footballing intelligence,” the former Burnley manager said.
“He is a versatile player with great talent. We tried out a few options in training and realised Thapa and Edwin would be the ideal partnership in the middle for our dynamic nature of play and fluidity of our attack,” he added.
With Vanspaul moving to midfield, there was a void to be filled at right-back. Coyle showed faith in another young Indian player Laldinliana Renthlei. On the opposite flank, he deployed Jerry Lalrinzuala while sticking with the centre-back pairing of Eli Sabia and Goian.
The Indian players responded to Coyle’s call and upped their performances.
Goian concurs: “I think the Indian players’ performance has been key in our results in the last two months.
“The young players like Thapa, Vishal Kaith, Renthlei, Vanspaul, Jerry and Chhangte all understood exactly what the coach wanted from them and delivered it perfectly. They have improved a great deal over the last few months and it has hugely benefited the foreign players and eventually the team,” he added.
Forward Chhangte especially has been a player transformed under the Irishman. He had scored no goals under Gregory and was guilty of wasteful in front of goal. After Coyle’s entry, the Mizoram-born youngster has netted six goals and is the second-highest Indian goalscorer in the league after Sunil Chhetri.
“I must say that Chhangte is an incredible talent, one of the brightest sparks for club and country. He has all the attributes to excel at the highest level,” Coyle said.
“There was criticism levelled at him and we have worked on those aspects. He is an important player for us and for India, and we hope he improves and continues for the years to come. He is an extremely humble and hard-working lad,” he added.
On Saturday, in the semi-final against FC Goa, both Thapa and Chhangte, Chennaiyin’s brightest Indian players got on the scoresheet and were instrumental in their second-half onslaught.
The Super Machans appeared a team transformed, scoring every chance that fell their way. A side that failed to find the net for 450 minutes at the start of the season, slammed home four goals in the space of 45 minutes against a team that finished the league stage on top of the pile.
It’s no surprise that Chennaiyin are dreaming of winning a record-setting third ISL title.
“We’ll have a few tough matches on course to the title, but there is a real belief in the group that we have the potential to win it. It’s now time to show it on the pitch,” Goian said.
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