Chennaiyin FC enter the third season of the Indian Super League (ISL) as defending champions, winning the trophy last year after making it to the semi-finals in the first edition. The Tamil Nadu-based team, co-owned by Abhishek Bachchan, MS Dhoni and Vita Dani, put up a spirited show and fought past their early season slump to beat FC Goa in the final last season and take home the silverware. But do they have it in them to do it again?
PERFORMANCE LAST SEASON
Having started the second season of the ISL as favourites, Chennaiyin took time to take off. Two losses in their first two games and one more in the next three meant that Chennaiyin were in troubled waters early on. But the way they turned things around, going on a four-game winning streak towards the end of the league phase to cement a play-off berth and then going all the way to win it is worthy of a movie script!
Chennaiyin lost the opener at home to Atletico de Kolkata and then the next game away to Delhi Dynamos. One of their best performances of the league phase came up next when they visited Goa and thoroughly outplayed them, winning 4-0. The next seven games saw Chennaiyin win only two but the worrying fact was that the side looked disjointed and found themselves rock bottom of the table.
Then came the turnaround. The Chennaiyin side, who were earlier struggling to put attacks together, became a free-scoring team and started winning, and winning big. The next three games, all at home, against Kerala, Delhi and Mumbai saw them plunder eleven goals and concede only one. They needed a win in their last league game away at Pune and came out 1-0 victors. Thus they finished third on the table, with 22 points from their 14 games, with seven wins and a draw, and the highest goal difference in the tournament.
They were pitted against Atletico de Kolkata in the play-offs and they beat the side who had done the double over them in the league phase in the 'home' leg, played at Pune because of the Chennai floods. That 3-0 win was enough as they managed to see out a barrage of attacks in the away leg and come away with a satisfactory 2-1 loss, which saw them book a place in the final.
The title clash, laden with thrills on the pitch and controversies off it, saw Chennaiyin fight back from a 2-1 deficit to win 3-2, leaving it really late. Colombian striker John Stiven Mendoza was the star for Chennaiyin, leading the league with 42 shots on target and also running away with the golden boot with 13 goals.
Camp Location – Perugia, Italy
7/9/16 - 3-1 (W) vs Paolo Rossi Academia
10/9/16 - 1-0 (W) vs ASD Gualdo Casacastalda
17/9/16 - 4-2 (W) vs ASD Torgiano
21/9/16 - 4-3 (W) vs Paolo Rossi Academia
THE MANAGER - MARCO MATERAZZI
The gaffer, Marco Materazzi, has been retained for the upcoming season as well, ensuring that there has been no change in the Chennaiyin dugout over the three editions. The Italian World Cup winner was much adored by the supporters last season as he built a close connect and rapport with the fans thanks to his winning mentality.
Materazzi is someone who is well respected by his players, and besides being tactically solid, he can also spur his ranks on.
However, instead of Vivek Nagul, Syed Sabir Pasha will be assisting him this time around.
Chennaiyin FC secured the services of Liverpool legend and former Delhi Dynamos centre back John Arne Riise, with the Norwegian assuming the role of the marquee player vacated by Elano who won't be returning to the side. The likes of Edel Bete, Lalmangaihsanga Ralte, Balwant Singh, Mailson Alves and Alessandro Potenza have been adequately replaced by Duwayne Kerr, Nallapan Mohanraj, Baljit Sahni, Eli Sabia and Siam Hanghal respectively.
Former Delhi midfielder Hans Mulder comes into the side as Bruno Pelissari goes the other way. However, it is the gaping hole left by Mendoza that Chennaiyin seem unable to fill up, with the club instead resorting to quantity, roping in three forwards in Maurizio Peluso, Davide Succi and Dudu Omagbemi.
Chennaiyin have brought on Daniel Lalhlimpuia and Uttam Rai as the two U-23 developmental players.
Chennaiyin have retained most of their key performers from last season bar a few big names, and the familiarity should help the squad bed in. With the retention of Raphael Augusto they have managed to bring back one of the best performers of the last season, and in Riise they have a mainstay around whom they can build their defense, as Materazzi found it difficult to name the same back four for back-to-back games.
While they have a traditional Italian number 9 in Davide Succi who was playing in the Serie A not so long ago, its the signing of Maurizio Peluso which is interesting as he has an incredible scoring record in the lower leagues in Italy and still has a few good years in him.
In Materazzi, Chennaiyin have a manager who is not afraid to axe the players if their performances are not upto the mark, as Elano witnessed first hand last season. This should keep the champions on their toes, and being a serial winner in his playing days, the Nerazzurri legend knows what it takes to keep complacency at bay.
The loss of their lynchpin Mendoza who ran the rival defenses ragged last season will be a huge concern. Chennaiyin have also opted for a conservative transfer policy, as instead of replacing Mendoza with a similar calibre of player, they have opted for players like Dudu, Succi and Peluso, who might not be as effective as the Colombian.
Jeje is in the form of his life, seemingly scoring at will and Chennaiyin will do well to make good use of him. Rated by many as the best Indian player currently, as also evident by him winning the Football Players' Association of India Player of the Year award, Jeje will look to convert his I-League and international form into goals for Chennaiyin.
The Brazilian formed a wonderful partnership at the heart of Chennaiyin's midfield with Harmanjot Khabra last season, but with the departure of Bruno Pelissari, he might be tasked with a more attacking role.
John Arne Riise:
As mentioned earlier, Riise could be the key cog that could make Chennaiyin an even better side by providing solidity in defense. The Norwegian was solid last seaon for Delhi, and nothing less would be expected this time around as well.
Goalkeepers: Duwayne Kerr Karanjit Singh, Pawan Kumar
Defenders: John Arne Riise, Bernard Mendy, Abhishek Das, Eli Sabia, Eder Monteiro, Nallapan Mohanraj, Mehrajuddin Wadoo, Dhanachandra Singh, Siam Hanghal
Midfielders: Hans Mulder, Harmanjot Khabra, Raphael Augusto, Manuele Blasi, Thoi Singh, Zakeer Mundampara, Dhanapal Ganesh
Forwards: Jeje Lalpekhlua, Baljit Sahni, Jayesh Rane, Davide Succi, Maurizio Peluso, Dudu Omagbemi, Daniel Lalhlimpuia, Uttam Rai
“My mentality is that if you score one more goal than the opponents then you win three points"
- Marco Materazzi