Chennayin FC, emerged champions of the Indian Super League in 2015 after an up-and-down roller coaster run, that saw them bottom of the league table at one point. To go from that stage to winning the title was a great comeback, just like their performance in the ISL final against FC Goa.
Chennaiyin had a torrid start to the ISL campaign last year, winning just three out of their first 10 games, a run that saw them bottom of the pile with little hope of qualification. But they came out firing on all cylinders to win their next four games to squeeze through to the play-offs. In the first leg of their semi-final, they steamrolled past Atletico, to set up a title clash against FC Goa.
The final proved to be an absolute humdinger, with Chennaiyin taking the lead before Goa equalised. The hosts then took an 87th minute lead and the match seemed like it would finish in favour of FC Goa. But thanks to an own goal and the indefatigable John Stiven Mendoza, Chennaiyin grabbed the unlikeliest of wins and with it the ISL title.
The biggest strength for Chennaiyin last year was their attack, with Mendoza leading the charts with 13 goals and three assists. But following two brilliant seasons with Chennaiyin FC, he is now considered indispensable his New York City franchise, and thus misses out this season. As replacement, Chennaiyin have brought in Dudu Omagbemi, an experienced forward with four goals and one assist last season.
However, by retaining Raphael Augusto, their midfield lynchpin from last season, Chennaiyin have pulled a coup. With Elano Blumer and Bruno Pelissari both missing out this year, a lot rests on the Brazilian to provide the creativity.
The defence finally wears a settled look with marquee signing John Arne Riise joining the ranks. With Eder Monteiro, Bernard Mendy, Mehrajuddin Wadoo, Dhanachandra Singh and Abhishek Das all continuing with Chennaiyin, coordination at the back shouldn't be an issue this year. Losing Apoula Edel Bete, who jumped ships to FC Pune City, would be a big blow, but Karanjit Singh has already proved to be an able deputy. The signing of Jamaican international Duwayne Kerr should keep Karanjit on his toes.
Chennaiyin's weakness this year could be their attack. With new faces joining the frontline, a lot of responsibility rests on Jeje Lalpekhlua. The work ethic of Mendoza will surely be missed, and Dudu has a high bar to match. Replacing a 13-goal striker (in a 17-match season) is no easy task and whether they do so will eventually decide the fate of this new-look Chennaiyin side. They will also be looking at the fairly established trio of Jayesh Rane, Thoi Singh and Harmanjot Khabhra to chip in with some goals for the team.
Chennaiyin would do well to continue with any variation of the 4-4-2. Karanjit should take his place between the sticks, with John Arne Riise and Eder Monteiro holding the fort ahead. Dhanachandra Singh and Mehrajuddin Wadoo should continue their good work as wingbacks. Bernard Mendy has surely lost pace and should play more of a fringe role this season. Raphael Augusto and Harmanjot Khabra pick themselves to shield the defence. Thoi on the right and Jayesh Rane on the left have given a good balance for Chennaiyin. Up front, there could be a toss-up between Jeje Lalpekhlua, Dudu and Maurizio Peluso for the two spots.
Marco Materazzi should be pleased with a perfect pre-season that had three wins out of three. He has already shown his tactical acumen when the chips are down in the past two seasons, so Chennaiyin fans can rest assured knowing that he has worked out a way to compensate for the losses of key personnel in the team. All in all, Chennaiyin have their task cut out as defending champions, but can hope for the best!