It’s fitting that Chennai City FC have been crowned the new I-League champions, for they have carried an aura of a champion team like no other club since Bengaluru FC lifted this title in 2016.
At no point during this season did Chennai City let you the feel that they were outsiders for this trophy — although before this season they weren’t even considered outsiders. At no point after the first few games was this league title anyone else but Chennai’s to lose — which is quite the transformation for a club that survived relegation by the skin of its teeth only 12 months ago.
Rewind to early December when Sony Norde’s superb goal gave Mohun Bagan a second half lead over visiting Chennai City at the Salt Lake Stadium. An even match until then, you felt that table-topping Chennai were giving Bagan too much respect. Once the visitors fell behind, they switched gears and turned on the style — a “how dare you score against us” attitude that was on display throughout the season.
Ajithkumar Kamaraj bombarded forward from left back. Mashoor Shereef, brought on to shackle Norde, shed his defensive responsibilities and ran the other way. Nestor Gordillo switched to the right side to vary Chennai’s point of attack.
What followed was an onslaught. It is a mystery how Bagan escaped with a point. Nestor found a gap and scored the equaliser, picked out beautifully by a long diagonal from defender Robert Eslava. Chennai went on to miss a host of chances but left with a sense of supremacy.
Of the three I-League fairytales, this one felt least like a fairytale on the pitch. Both Aizawl FC (in 2017) and Minerva Punjab (in 2018) had the feel of Davids going up against Goliaths; of playing within limitations; of grinding out results and of punching above their collective weights. Chennai though? They just dominated.
They dominated possession and they dominated teams. Not just at home, but also away from it: 57% away at East Bengal, 62% at Mohun Bagan, 67% at Gokulam Kerala, 53% in Aizawl, 71% at Minerva and 59% in Goa. These are incredible figures.
Under Singaporean coach Akbar Nawas, this team produced the sumptuous short-passing style of football that has long been on the wishlist of football fans. A sort of style that would make fans out of viewers and preachers out of fans: “you’ve got to watch Chennai City play”. It felt surreal to see the quality with which even Indian players, considered technically deficient, kept possession of the ball in Nawas’ system.
Alongside Indian Super League (ISL) club FC Goa, another “tiki-taka” proponent, Chennai were the most watchable team in the land. It’s a real pity they did not get more eyeballs due to the below-par TV coverage and scheduling of the I-League.
Chennai also trailed by a goal in 10 out of 20 matches it played this season. Of these, five were turned into wins and two more into draws, which is evidence of the substance in the team along with the style, and the belief in that style. This proved to be handy on the final day.
Chennai, missing key players in Nestor (suspended) and Eslava (injured), went behind early in the must-win final game against Minerva. For large periods of the first half, panic had set in and players began to betray the principles that brought them to the brink of glory. Too many direct balls and too little patience in the final third.
Second half, and presumably Nawas’ team talk, changed all that. Players were much better with the ball and they earned their rewards: a 3-1 victory with Pedro Manzi scoring his 21st goal from the spot and young Gaurav Bora, a midfielder turned ball-playing centre-back, scoring twice.
Off the pitch, though, it’s been quite a fairytale rise. And a triumph of planning and philosophy. In 2014, this club was playing in Tamil Nadu’s second tier. In 2017, it made an entry into India’s top division. In 2018, it barely escaped relegation from this top division. The rest is history.
When we made the dressing room, a mess ! pic.twitter.com/ujIxSGkUFv
— Chennai City FC (@ChennaiCityFC) March 9, 2019
Nawas joined the team as a Technical Consultant at the end of last season and took over as its coach after the season ended. A lot of credit must go to the club owners for identifying him and placing him well in advance of the next season.
Nawas came in with a clear vision of how his team would play. “We (would) like to build up from the back, dominate possession, and then play in the opponent’s half,” he had told reporters in March last year. Then, along with Jordi Vila, his Spanish assistant at the time, Nawas scouted local leagues and recruited players who fit his style. Players who were part of last year’s squad had to pass the test as well.
Players such as Edwin Vanspaul, Alexander Romario Jesuraj, Charles Anandraj, Gaurav Bora and Mashoor Shereef have gone from being nearly relegated to champions. All have improved by leaps and bounds in Nawas’ system. Others like Michael Regin, Kamaraj, Pravitto Raju and Ameerudeen Mohaideen fit in well.
Vila helped with foreigners too. Spaniards Manzi, Nestor, Eslava and Sandro Rodriguez became key players around which the team was built. Manzi scored 21 goals, while Nestor and Sandro netted eight and nine respectively. They were all in sync with each other; and a joy to watch.
Right from the start, this was a team that looked like champions. And it played like champions.
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Updated Date: Mar 10, 2019 21:25:57 IST