A clash between champions is always one to savour especially in a competition that is still in its relative infancy. The Indian Super League is into just its third season, only two champions yet. That honour went to Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) in the first season and Chennaiyin FC in the second, teams based out of two major port cities on India's Eastern coast.
Clashes between the two have always been feisty, not in terms of altercations, but in the intensity that the matches produce. It's also a matchup that the side from Kolkata have enjoyed an upper hand in - ATK have lost just the once to Chennaiyin, in the first leg of their semifinal last year and have never lost any of their games in the league phase.
This past Sunday, that record was what Chennaiyin were looking to dent as the latest chapter of this rivalry unfolded with added stakes in the mix - the race for the playoffs. They couldn't' quite get it done, though, having to settle for a share of the points after a 1-1 draw at the 'Marina Arena’ in Chennai.
But, of course, this wasn't one of those drab, tepid draws that we get in football every now and then. It was quite the game of football. Atletico played the perfect away game, taking the lead in the first half and looking to hold on to it in the second. Chennaiyin were sluggish to start with but came roaring back in the second half, with wave after wave of attacks, got the equaliser, but couldn't net the winner. And the atmosphere was, by far, the best that the Marina Arena has seen this season.
As the home team ratcheted up the pressure in the second period, the noise reached deafening levels. The 24-thousand something people packed inside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium infused a cauldron-like atmosphere inside the arena, as they egged on their 'Super Machans’ down on the pitch.
The Chennaiyin players looked to be feeding off of the energy as well and when after an extended siege of the ATK goal, Davide Succi grabbed the equaliser to make it 1-1, there was liftoff. Unfortunately for the home side, only 10 minutes of normal time remained and time proved to be their enemy as that elusive second goal turned out to be just that… elusive.
A third draw in their last four home games saw Chennaiyin lose momentum and stay sixth in the table while ATK stayed a point above, moving to third on goal difference.
The draw this time though wasn't for a lack of effort or energy. Sunday's attendance was the highest seen in Chennai so far this season and it made for a wonderful setting indeed for the players to play in. Afterwards, while obviously disappointed with the result, many Chennaiyin players tipped their hat to the fans at the game on Sunday.
“We need 30,000 fans at the stadium. It’s easy to cheer when the team is winning. We need fans to cheer us in our bad moments,” Chennaiyin head coach Marco Materazzi had said before the home game against FC Pune City last week.
Materazzi definitely had reasons to be peeved; the numbers in the stadium had been quite disappointing in the first four home games. But on Sunday, Materazzi and Chennaiyin finally had their hordes of punch-drunk supporters in the stands. With one final home game remaining, against NorthEast United on Saturday, here's hoping the masses are back to recreate the atmosphere from Sunday.
Going by how tight it is in the table and how results have perhaps not gone their way this season, it would serve as the perfect setting for the defending champions to mount their last stand.
Mizo en place
The French believe that a good preparation beforehand goes a long way in delivering a fine lunch/dinner service. Putting in place the right elements and ingredients necessary serves to avoid confusion and unnecessary mess ups.
Chennaiyin have a similar policy in place - have a lot of talented Mizo players at your disposal and all will be well with the world.
Picture this - a high stakes game at home against a strong side in ATK, you are trailing by a goal and with four minutes and just 22 minutes in, one of your main strikers and star Indian players sits down on the field and motions to the bench to make a substitution.
In his place, you send on an 18-year-old rookie for his debut, a guy who'd been in school until a few months ago. Materazzi has never been one to back away from risky decisions and give youth a fair chance. To his credit and everyone's delight inside the stadium, young Daniel Lalhlimpuia acquitted himself pretty well.
Jeje suffered a strain to his lower calf and ankle area on his right foot and left the stadium later with ice on his injury.
The tiny state of Mizoram has become a conveyor belt of talent for Indian football and Chennaiyin are amongst its best samplers. After Jeje Lalpekhlua’s star turn for club and then country, and young Jerry Lalrinzuala who’s gotten thrown onto the big stage this year, it was now Daniel's turn.
Having just returned from duties with Bengaluru FC in the AFC Cup, he looked sharp as he initially played up front and then wide left in a front three. From the time he was introduced though Daniel never hesitated to run at the defenders every time he got the ball, a lot like Marcus Rashford of Manchester United actually.
A deft 360 on the ball leaving the defender for dead was the perhaps the best 'moment’ in this debut of his, but his pace and ability to run at the defence and get crosses in down that left side proved a huge problem for ATK.
Materazzi’s gutsy move must be applauded, a lot of managers/coaches may have chosen to look at a player with some experience at least. Jayesh Rane was on the bench for Chennaiyin and a good option too. Yet the Italian World Cup winner chose to go with the young Mizo lad.
“He played very well”, Materazzi said after the game in typically understated fashion.
His team's inability to get the three points from yet another home game might have rankled him more, but when looking back at the game after a day or two, he and the fans of the club must be delighted at what they saw from the debutant.
Chennaiyin has been a club that has seen many young Indian talents come through since the beginning of ISL. A lot of it has to do with opportunities given to these guys by Materazzi and Daniel looks to be the latest in that line.
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