ISL 2018-19: Chennaiyin FC boast a stable rearguard but thin frontline might end up rocking their title defense
One can be assured of is that Chennaiyin will come all guns blazing on 30 September at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium as they aim to achieve what hasn’t been successfully done so far: retain the ISL title
Dressed in their traditional blue, donning the dhrishti bommai crest on their chests, the Chennaiyin FC team arrived in the city on 22 September. Welcomed by chants, garlands, and a bunch of happy faces, John Gregory and Co were given a grand reception by the club supporters as the team arrived to begin preparations for their title defence.
The 2017-18 title-winning season saw the team clinch nine wins, thereby finishing second on the league table, only behind Bengaluru FC. Having qualified for the play-offs, Chennaiyin were up against an attack-minded FC Goa side, whom they eventually silenced by progressing with a 4-1 aggregate score-line. The finale pitted them against table leaders Bengaluru FC, but Gregory’s plans got the better of the Blues, as Chennaiyin had the last laugh at Bengaluru’s fortress, Sree Kanteerava Stadium.
Coincidentally, the Chennai-based outfit will begin the campaign with a game against Bengaluru.
In their quest to repeat history, the Vita Dani co-owned club has plunged into the transfer market and made several changes to the roster.
Centre-back Henrique Sereno, who made 18 appearances last season, will be the biggest absence in the Marina Machans’ side this year. However, Eli Sabia, who featured in Chennaiyin’s 2016-17 chapter, has been roped in as Sereno’s replacement. Among other names in the exodus, midfielder Rene Mihelic has made his way to Delhi Dynamos FC along with Bikramjit Singh, while winger Jaime Gavilan has opted for a move outside Indian Super League (ISL), joining LaLiga 2 team AD Alcorcon. Backup goalkeeper Pawan Kumar and defender Dhanachandra Singh have joined NorthEast United FC and Jamshedpur FC respectively.
Arriving at the club, Spaniard Andrea Orlandi will be slotted in the middle of the park, and Palestinian forward Carlos Salom will lead the attack with Indian international Jeje Lalpekhlua. Shillong Lajong-groomed Isaac Vanmalsawma, known for his set-piece abilities, too joins the two-time champions alongside Sinivasan Pandiyan, after his breakout season with Chennai City. In addition to this, Chennaiyin have secured long-term deals with youngsters Rahim Ali, Abhijit Sarkar and Deepak Tangri. The deal allows the trio to be loaned back at I-League side, Indian Arrows, to gain game time for their development.
In the defense, Chennaiyin welcome Tondonba Singh and Laldinliana Renthlei from north-eastern I-League clubs NEROCA FC and Aizawl FC. Zohmingliana Ralte shifts from one southern side to another as he will now ply his trade at Chennaiyin FC, moving out of Bengaluru FC. After a good spell at Gokulam Kerala FC, Nikhil Bernard has been picked up by the Chennaiyin scouts as he joins Sanjiban Ghosh from Jamshedpur FC in the goalkeeping department.
Apart from changes in the first team, 64-year-old Gregory has also shuffled his backroom staff. An admirer of ex-Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, Gregory is following the Scot’s formula of altering staff to welcome new techniques. Paul Groves has been appointed as the assistant coach, replacing Mark Lillis, and goalkeeping coach Kevin Hitchcock will take charge in place of Tony Warner. Paul Groves is reunited with gaffer Gregory and Sports Scientist Dr. Niall Clark, having worked with the two at Crawley Town FC in the 2014-15 season, while Kevin Hitchcock worked with Groves last year at Birmingham City FC.
Although Chennaiyin have processed various transfers this season, the management has done well to retain their core players in Mailson Alves, Inigo Calderon and Gregory Nelson. To make things better, Raphael Augusto will continue at the club for a fourth year running, hereby proving his worth in Gregory’s army.
With most of their first-choice defensive options retained from the campaign-winning season, Chennaiyin’s stability at the back will prove to be their strength. The experience of Mailson Alves and Inigo Calderon coupled with the promising talent of Jerry Lalrinzuala and the return of Eli Sabia could pose trouble for the oppositions’ strikers.
The midfield too looks balanced with proven international names and talented domestic youngsters. On the flanks, Dutchman Nelson and Goan Francisco Fernandes were in sublime form last season and will look to replicate it this year. Augusto’s presence further strengthens the midfield, which will boast the likes of Anirudh Thapa and Germanpreet Singh, who will come into the side having tested themselves at the SAFF Cup in Bangladesh.
Newly recruited Andrea Orlandi will put his experience to use from his days at Brighton & Hove Albion FC, Swansea City FC, et al. Gregory’s midfield will also see Sinivasan Pandiyan fetch game time in ISL this year, but midfielder Dhanpal Ganesh’s inclusion could be delayed after he picked up a knee injury which sidelines him for several fixtures.
While things look pretty much lively in the centre of the field for Chennaiyin, the team’s frontline might end up being its Achilles heel. There would be immense pressure on Jeje to deliver from the front especially after the Mizo had a slow start to the season last year. Apart from Jeje, Chennaiyin have Mohammed Rafi and new signing Salom. At 36, with age not quite on his side, Rafi would have to put in tremendous effort to keep up with the pressure of the league. As for newbie Salom, adapting to a new league would be challenging and could also take time.
Regardless of the vulnerabilities, Gregory has his mind set for the upcoming battles. ‘’When Sir Alex Ferguson won his first championship in the 90's, all he wanted to do was go and win it the following season. And he did it 13 times. That’s the true sign of a champion. Real champions don’t just win it once, they go back and win it the year after and the year after that.” Thus, what one can be assured of is that Gregory and his men will come all guns blazing on 30 September at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium as they aim to achieve what hasn’t been successfully done so far: retain the ISL title.
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