ISL semifinal: Jeje-Mendoza chemistry central to Chennaiyin FC's dismantling of Atletico de Kolkata

The Indian Super League first leg semifinal clash between Chennaiyin FC and Atletico de Kolkata was seen as one between two form sides, with the former on a run of four consecutive wins and the latter with just one defeat in their last six games.

These were two teams that were, to borrow a sporting cliché, peaking at the right time of the tournament. The mood before the match at the press conference was one of mutual admiration between Marco Materazzi and Antonio Habas – giving credit to each other for turning around their respective teams’ fortunes.

But at the end of 90 minutes, there was only one man and one team who left the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune with happiness.


Jeje and Mendoza have struck a brilliant partnership at Chennaiyin. ISL

Chennaiyin FC, without even having to put in an exemplary technical performance, won the match 3-0 to put defending champions on the brink of elimination. Despite going into this game with a depleted squad – Elano and Mehrajuddin Wadoo suspended, and the influential Raphael Augusto out for the tournament with injury – Chennaiyin recorded their fifth win on the trot. That’s a feat that’s not been achieved in the two-year history of ISL.

Here are the talking points from a fairly one-sided match:

Atletico got hardly anything right

It is easy to say that when the team loses a big match 3-0, but when it is a team that has looked so tactically assure, playing firebrand football, racking up the goals with Iain Hume in top form, it is surprising how little Atletico got right on night that mattered.

The start of the match was understandably cagey, like it almost always is during the knockout phase of tournaments. But the opening exchanges saw Atletico commit too many silly fouls in dangerous areas and with a set-piece taker of Bruno Pelissari’s quality in the Chennai ranks, it was bound to back-fire. Bruno made them pay with an unstoppable, swerving free-kick late in the first half.

With both teams not looking to play expansive football, the first goal was always going to be the most crucial and after that Chennaiyin hardly lost control of the match.

Tactically too, Habas looked bereft of ideas as the hitherto influential Sameehg Doutie finished 60 minutes on the right flank without making an offensive contribution of note. Doutie’s form has been central to Atletico’s resurgence this year, but his most attractive performances have come when played down the left or given a free role. With local lad Arata Izumi hugging the left flank against Chennaiyin, Doutie was shunted to a purely right wing role and he was largely anonymous. Given Chennaiyin were playing a makeshift right back in the form of Harmanjot Khabra, Doutie was surprisingly not given a run of the left wing.

Borja Fernandez’ early substitution did not help Habas either, but it was interesting to see the coach replace the midfield lynchpin with the tall (really tall) Serbian forward Dejan Lekic – a move that seemed to create some flutter at the back for Chennaiyin early on. But without the service from the middle or flanks, the move did not pay off as the Lekic-Hume partnership could not find the back of the net.

That the goalkeeper Amrinder Singh decided to do his best Manuel Neuer impression, running out of his penalty area thrice (third time unlucky as Atletico conceded their second) did not help matters either.

Habas defended both the decisions post-match, when asked by Firstpost to comment on his tactics. “Doutie is a right winger, so he played on the right. If I play him on the left and we lose, you will still ask me why he played on the left,” said Habas. “As for Lekic, we were trailing 1-0 when Borja had to come off, so I had to try something to get a goal. Unfortunately for us, it didn’t happen,” he added.

Habas still has 90 minutes at the Salt Lake fortress to turn this around, but Atletico need a miracle.

Chennaiyin FC’s front three and the fighting spirit

Responding to Firstpost’s query pre-match on Augusto’s injury, Materazzi said: “I’ll have to be crazy to think I can replace a player of Raphael’s quality. For me, he is the best player in ISL this year, but we’ll manage.”

Chennaiyin more than managed. Just like Materazzi said, the team could not really replace Raphael’s ball-playing skills and calmness in midfield. As a result, they never had great control over the game, with ball retention proving an issue in the first half. They ended the match with 49 percent possession.

But what they did was to replace his technique with more steel -- Manuel Blasi along with Zakeer Mundampara and Thoi Singh were hounding Atletico’s players. This resulted in a fair share of fouls too -- 25 to be precise -- compared to Kolkata’s 19. But they were, you could say, clever fouls.

Habas said after the match that where his team lost out on the night was the hunger shown by the players on the night, and he was right.

Well, the hunger and a forward-line that clicked perfectly for Chennaiyin. Bruno, Stiven Mendoza and Jeje Lalpekhlua have now stuck a chemistry that has arguably not been matched by any team this year. Especially, the almost-telepathic understanding between Jeje and Mendoza, was evident throughout the night as the two pacy forwards exchanged one-twos on numerous occasions to fashion Chennaiyin’s best chances on the night. Bruno was able foil too, drifting in from the left and creating space for the Jeje-Mendoza axis.

The second and third goals on the night from Chennai were purely down to this chemistry. The Colombian unselfishly put the second on a platter for India’s leading scorer in this year’s ISL. Jeje then turned provider, playing a delightful chip through ball for Mendoza’s 12th goal this season. Even when the moves did not work out, the three of them were quick to put up their hands in apology to the others – there was hardly any finger-pointing or tantrum-throwing on the night – a sign of a forward line working for each other.

Materazzi will only know too well that a 3-0 first leg deficit is tricky, as Chennayin showed last year coming back to 3-3 after being down by three goals to Kerala Blasters in the first leg, only to lose out to a goal late in extra time. This time around he is on the right side of a three-goal lead and will be cautiously optimistic about reaching the final.

As one of the Chennaiyin team official yelled out when getting on to the team bus after the match, “we’ll see you in Goa”, Materazzi’s men might just have done enough in Pune.

Updated Date: Dec 13, 2015 17:37 PM