How have the mighty fallen! Chennaiyin FC and FC Pune City, semi-finalists from last season, were without a win and rooted to the bottom of the points table when they faced each other on Tuesday. A drastic dip in form and standards from some of their best players from last season and negligence in strengthening their sides in the off-season has cost both clubs valuable points at the start of the season.
Failure to strengthen squad
Before the start of the new season, Chennaiyin were dealt a blow after influential midfielder Dhanpal Ganesh suffered a knee injury, ruling him out for the first half of the season. Dhanpal was a vital cog in Chennaiyin's defensive set up last time around and had the third-most tackles among Indian midfielders with 44 in 17 games. Dhanpal also had 22 interceptions to his name, with only Rowllin Borges having more among Indian midfielders. His absence has been dearly felt by Chennaiyin who are languishing in eighth position after just one win in six matches.
While his injury was plain bad luck, Chennaiyin have shown short-sightedness in strengthening the midfield. Regardless of Dhanpal's injury, the champions should have dipped into the transfer market in search for a player in his mould to give the team more options from the bench.
To add to that, Chennaiyin also let the midfield duo of Bikramjit Singh and Rene Mihelic leave at the end of the season, both of whom were an integral part of Chennaiyin's title-winning side. Bikramjit made 37 tackles and 15 interceptions and formed a good partnership with Dhanpal in midfield as the duo proved effective in shielding the defence.
Mihelic gave coach John Gregory an attacking option from the bench. In midfield lynchpin Raphael Augusto's absence, the Slovenian set-piece specialist acted as the perfect replacement and he also contributed with two goals and four assists.
Without Dhanpal, Gregory has tried various combinations in midfield without much success. Anirudh Thapa, Raphael Augusto and Germanpreet Singh have played in a deeper role this season but none have provided the solidity that Dhanpal does.
While their possession and passing stats have been high, Chennaiyin haven't been able to make a mark in attack. When it comes to the defensive aspect of the game, the fact that Thapa and Germanpreet are not as physically imposing as Dhanpal has made it easier for opposition players to assert themselves in midfield. This was brought to the fore in their 3-4 loss to NorthEast United FC, where Rowllin Borges and Federico Guedo bossed over the Chennaiyin midfield.
Pune's campaign, on the other hand, got off to a bad start even before the ball was kicked. Marcos Paqueta, roped in to replace Ranko Popovic, terminated his contract within a week to join Brazilian club Botafogo. Pune then signed former Delhi Dynamos manager Miguel Angel Portugal. The Spaniard endured a difficult start to the season and couldn't implement his tactics as quickly as he would have hoped. Portugal's reign lasted for only four matches as technical director Pradyum Reddy took over as interim manager.
Compared to Chennaiyin, Pune's issues in midfield are quite the opposite. In Adil Khan, Marko Stankovic and Jonathan Vila, the Stallions have options in defensive midfield. What they lack is a quality ball-playing midfielder.
Last season, Marcos Tebar and Jonatan Lucca dictated the pace and tempo of the game for Pune in midfield. However, at the end of the season Pune saw both players depart, and like Chennaiyin, did not sign like-for-like replacements. Pune have struggled to create chances from the centre of the park relying mostly on the industry of winger Ashique Kuruniyan down the left. They have also been unable to pierce defences and feed the likes of Emiliano Alfaro, Diego Carlos and Marcelinho in attack leading the trio to drop deep in pursuit of the ball.
Toothless in attack and vulnerable at the back
Despite being Chennaiyin's top-scorer last season with nine goals, Jeje Lalpekhlua cut out a frustrating figure in front of goal with his inconsistency. The Mizo Sniper went six matches on the trot without scoring last season much to Gregory's chagrin. Much was expected from Jeje given his talent and his role as a senior player in the side. However, he is yet to open his account this season and was even relegated to the bench after the first two matches before returning to the starting line-up in the sixth match.
Jeje's goal drought has forced Gregory to start with new signing Carlos Salom. However, with ISL rules allowing teams to field only five foreign players in the starting line-up, Gregory has had to tinker with his preferred XI to accommodate Salom with Gregory Nelson and captain Mailson Alves dropping to the bench.
Like Chennaiyin, Pune have also seen their forwards get off to a poor start. The pair of Alfaro and Marcelinho were key players for Pune last season as the duo's combined goal tally of 17 propelled Pune to their first-ever top-four finish. However, neither of them has had a good start to the season, with both players finding the back of the net only once each. To make matters worse, Alfaro has missed penalties in back-to-back matches while Diego Carlos and Marcelinho both picking up suspensions after being sent off against Goa and Chennaiyin respectively. Ashique Kuruniyan has been the lone bright spot in the Pune attack with the Malappuram winger looking dangerous down the right wing.
In their title-winning campaign last season, Chennaiyin boasted the third-best defensive record during the league stage. Key to that was the foreign trio of skipper Henrique Sereno, Inigo Calderon and Mailson Alves. With Sereno leaving at the end of the season, Gregory resigned Brazilian Eli Sabia.
While one would have expected the newcomer to struggle initially, it has been the experienced duo of Calderon and Mailson who have been sub-par so far. In particular, their defending against Goa and NorthEast United FC was appalling. Despite looking solid for large periods of matches, a lapse in concentration or a silly error has been enough for opposition attacks to slice through the Chennai defence, a problem Gregory tried to address by restructuring his back four.
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He dropped Mailson with Calderon shifting to centre back and winger Fransico Fernandes dropping in at right back. The new-look defence got Chennai their first clean sheet of the season against Delhi but its success was short-lived. Two of the three goals that Chennaiyin conceded against ATK and Mumbai City were the result of some callous defending from Calderon and Fernandes.
Against Pune, Gregory got Mailson back into the starting XI and even though they conceded twice, Mailson responded by scoring Chennaiyin's equaliser and creating their third goal. Calderon also got on the scoresheet but he was given a torrid time by Ashique on the wings.
After their 4-2 loss to Chennaiyin, Reddy expressed his disappointment with his side's defensive performance. Despite leading 1-0 at half-time, Pune conceded four times in the space of 18 second-half minutes. While Reddy said that fatigue and a lack of match fitness led to the defensive collapse, the problem runs deeper. Pune have the worst defensive record in the season so far with 15 goals conceded in just six matches. In contrast, they let in 21 goals in total last season. Pune haven't figured out their strongest back-four so far and have fielded five different combinations in six matches without success. No matter which combination plays, Pune look prone to buckling even under the slightest of pressure.
With the likes of Bengaluru, NorthEast United, Jamshedpur and Goa getting off to a good start, Chennaiyin and Pune face an uphill task to qualify for the semi-finals. Although it is going to take an incredible reversal of fortunes for either side to finish in the top four, the January transfer window seems to be the best hope for both sides to address their issues. For the time being, however, they will have to live with the poor choices they have made.
Updated Date: Nov 08, 2018 22:50:46 IST