"This is my third year and it is not easy. I have never worked so hard in my life and it might be time for someone else to take over. Frankly, this is the worst I have felt in my time here. In my opinion, the club comes first and we have to do what's best for the club."
This is what Chennaiyin manager John Gregory had to say after his side slumped to a third defeat of the season in Bengaluru on Sunday. It has been seven months since Chennaiyin last scored a goal in the ISL and almost a year since they scored in an away fixture. Since the start of last season, Chennaiyin have played 22 league matches winning just two and losing a staggering 16. This is a team thoroughly lacking in ideas and intent both on and off the pitch. Last night was just another display of how far behind Chennai have fallen since clinching the title two years ago.
Both sides were winless coming into the match with Chennaiyin also in search of their first goal of the season. Carles Cuadrat made two changes to his side. Fan favourite Erik Paartalu replaced the misfiring Manuel Onwu to make his first appearance of the season after recovering from injury. The big Australian partnered Dimas Delgado with the duo effectively pulling the strings from midfield. Former Chennaiyin man Raphael Augusto started in the No 10 role with Sunil Chhetri spearheading the attack. Ashique Kuruniyan came back into the side and started on the wing for the first time this season. Perhaps Cuadrat realised that left-back wasn’t a position that brought out the best in the Kerala winger.
Chennaiyin coach John Gregory also made two changes to his side, curiously leaving out two of his better players on the bench. Winger Rahim Ali replaced Lallianzuala Chhangte on the left with striker Andre Schembri starting ahead of Dragos Firtulescu.
The changes also resulted in a change of formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a flat 4-4-2 with centre-midfielder Anirudh Thapa having to play on the right. The decision backfired as Dhanpal Ganesh and Rafael Crivellaro were overpowered in midfield by Paartalu, Dimas and Augusto. The trio were successful in cutting off Chennai’s strikers.
Big Erik shines
Bengaluru started brightly with Paartalu and Juanan nearly scoring inside the first five minutes only to be denied by Vishal Kaith in the Chennaiyin goal. Raphael Augusto came close to scoring against his old side before Sunil Chhetri found the post from a stooping header in the 11th minute. Chennaiyin, meanwhile, were barely able to get a touch in the opposing half.
It never looked like Bengaluru would take too long to break the deadlock, given how disorganised the Chennaiyin defence looked. Paartalu marked his return to the side by heading in the opener and it was nothing less than Bengaluru and Paatalu deserved. The 33-year-old enforcer missed the end of last season through injury and had to watch from the sidelines as Bengaluru clinched the title.
11 minutes later, Bengaluru struck again. Augusto played a delightful ball over the top for Chhetri to run on to. The Indian skipper timed his run between the two centre-backs to perfection and blasted in a first-time shot past Kaith at the near post. Augusto came close once again but was denied yet again by Kaith. The Brazilian was a constant menace to his old side and deserved a goal if only to prove that Chennai were wrong in selling him.
Paartalu was undoubtedly the best player on the pitch. The Australian was the perfect shield for the Bengaluru defence, beating the Chennai strikers in the air while also cutting Chennai’s passing lines. Paartalu’s calm and solid influence allowed Dimas and Augusto to operate higher up the pitch. Semboi Haokip’s persistence gave Paartalu a rare assist after the substitute out muscled Eli Sabia to toe-poke in the third goal for Bengaluru.
Despite having more possession, Chennaiyin rarely looked like scoring. Schembri and Nerijus Valskis were isolated up top and fed on scraps. When Crivellaro looked to play closer to his strikers, he was quickly closed down by the Bengaluru pivot. It was only with the introduction of Chhangte in the second half that Chennai started to show some real intent going forward.
Their first real chance came only in the second half when Dhanpal directed his header off a corner on the wrong side of the post. Crivellaro should have had a penalty in the 71st minute after being fouled by Augusto only to be denied by the referee. 10 minutes later Chennai came closest to pulling a goal back when Dhanpal struck the post from a set-piece situation.
The Chennai ownership backed Gregory despite the horror show that was last season. The Englishman overhauled his foreign contingent but the issues remain the same. Frail at the back and toothless upfront. Lucian Goian, brought in to provide steel to the defence and leadership in the dressing room, has provided neither. So far the Romanian has been guilty of making poor tackles and finding himself out of position leaving Eli Sabia to carry out bulk of the defensive duties.
The Anirudh Thapa who forced his way into the side during Chennaiyin’s title-winning run two seasons ago is nowhere to be seen. The youngster was mediocre at best last season and hasn’t been able to shake off the rust so far.
The decision to continue with Gregory after the Englishman presided over the worst season ever for any club in the history of the ISL perplexed many. The former Aston Villa man still remains a much-beloved figure among the Chennaiyin faithful but another dreadful season could see the fans turn against him. With the season pausing for the international break, now seems to be a good time for both parties to go their separate ways and begin afresh.
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Updated Date: Nov 11, 2019 16:26:54 IST