For Chennaiyin FC, the 2016 season of the Indian Super League (ISL) has been akin to the movie Groundhog Day. They play well, take the lead, give up the lead, lose/draw games that they were supposed to win. And it just keeps happening over and over again. Unlike Bill Murray in the movie, they couldn’t quite find what was needed to break the cycle.
On Sunday, three times they took the lead, three times they relinquished it. Thrice the boisterous fans inside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai rose to their feet in delirious joy and thrice they had the joy sucked right out of them. Needing a win to keep their hopes of making the semi-finals alive all they managed was a 3-3 draw against a plucky NorthEast United side, who ruthlessly took the chances they were afforded, the last of which came in the 95th minute of the match.
Shouvik Ghosh found himself unmarked in the middle of the box and he powered home a header past a helpless Karanjit Singh from the incoming Nicolas Velez corner to make it 3-3 and deliver a gut punch to Chennaiyin.
This after Dudu, who has had a largely unimpressive season, shone for the home side netting a hat-trick in a performance that was tireless and spirited. Chennaiyin controlled the game for much of the time, yet never quite closed the door shut on NorthEast and it would come back to haunt them.
The game itself was one of the best of the 2016 ISL season with momentum swinging both ways, but Chennaiyin would consign this game to the long list of matches this season tagged ‘the ones that got away’.
Shooting themselves in the foot
In many ways, Sunday’s 3-3 draw was a microcosm of Chennaiyin’s entire season this time around. On numerous occasions, they’ve given up points from positions of strength. And it started from the get-go. In their very first game of the season, away at Atletico de Kolkata (ATK), they led 2-1 going into the last 10 minutes of regulation after having come from a goal down.
In the 83rd minute, they gave away a penalty that Iain Hume converted to rescue a point for ATK. Then, on the road at FC Pune City, they led 1-0 thanks to an early Jeje Lalpekhlua strike. However, in the 84th minute yet again, they gave away a free-kick just outside the box and Anibal Rodriguez made them pay with a well-taken effort; that game ended 1-1.
Coming back home, they could not break through a tight Kerala Blasters defence, but in the next game led 1-0 against Mumbai City FC having controlled the game throughout and Mumbai had not mustered two shots on target.
Yet Leo Costa, coming on as a sub, was given space and time and he let rip a scorcher from about 35 yards out that beat the keeper all ends up, helping Mumbai salvage a 1-1 draw. In the return game at Kerala on the road, the game was 1-1 with 10 minutes to go and Chennaiyin looked good for a well-earned point, but an absolute gaffe from goalkeeper Duwayne Kerr helped Kerala take the lead and they conceded another to lose that one 1-3. And then there was Sunday.
It’s a reflection that their head coach Marco Materazzi has brought up numerous times and did so again after the disappointment of the 3-3 draw.
“In Kolkata, we conceded a goal in the 84th-85th minute. Against Mumbai, we conceded a goal in the 87th minute after they had shot only once on our goal. Pune, same thing, 84th minute we conceded a free-kick and today 95th minute,” Materazzi lamented.
Inability to close out games
Eight. That is the number of goals that Chennaiyin have conceded after the 80th minute this season. 84th minute at ATK, 85th minute vs Delhi Dynamos, 83rd minute at Pune City, 88th minute vs Mumbai City, 85th minute at Delhi Dynamos, 85th and 89th minutes at Kerala Blasters and 95th minute vs NorthEast United.
That’s 40% of the goals conceded and barring the two goals at the end against Delhi (those were blowout losses), in every other game they were leading while in that away game in Kerala the scores were tied 1-1.
When the team looks back at this season, at the end, this could very well be the area that they identify where the season went south – an inability to close out games.
Paying for their mistakes
For a good portion of the time against NorthEast, Chennaiyin looked they were going to get the three points and live to fight another day. But mistakes across the pitch saw them hand the initiative back to NorthEast and The Highlanders made sure not to miss out on any of those invitations.
NorthEast’s first goal came from a move that started with two Chennaiyin midfielders not tackling Romaric who passed the ball to Velez. The Argentine was surrounded by four blue shirts yet not one attempted to put any pressure on him and allowed him to run in to take a shot. The finish, of course, was superb, but he was allowed way too much freedom. 1-1.
Velez and NorthEast’s second was a similar story. In fact, there were three mistakes in succession that led to this goal. You make one mistake, you can get away with it, you make two, there’s a 50% chance you concede, you make three… you are shooting yourself in the foot.
The move starts when Wellington Priory along with the overlapping right-back isolate Chennaiyin left-back Jerry Lalrinzuala for a 2-on-1 situation. Jerry goes to press the right-back correctly, but the ball is passed back to Priory who has acres of room to cross the ball in.
Despite this, the cross is a bad one, going straight to Eli Sabia who has an easy clearance to make, but he fluffs his clearance, sending the ball straight to Velez instead. The Argentine’s shoots, not a very well-hit one, but it takes a slight deflection of Sabia’s foot and Karanjit makes the third and final mistake when he doesn’t get behind the ball correctly, allowing it to slip through his hands. 2-2.
The third and final equaliser was, of course, the most shocking. With their future in the competition at stake and the side desperately holding onto a single-goal lead, Chennaiyin completely switched off in that final corner. The fact that they needed a Sabia goal-line clearance to still be ahead just seconds before that should have kept them on alert. But here’s what happened.
That’s seven Chennaiyin players (excluding the keeper) in front of their goal marking three NorthEast players and yet they somehow left Ghosh unmarked. He finds himself in the middle completely free and has an easy put away.
“So when you concede a goal, it’s not only the defence, you can’t blame one single phase. Actually, when we conceded the first goal, the action started with Hanghal, not tackling strong enough. What I regret is that we didn’t try to score the fourth goal and Raphael was trying to dribble past five players when he could have given a long ball to Mendy with about 40 seconds left. That’s the only thing I regret, but as I said this is football and this year went like this and there’s not much we can do about it,” Materazzi claimed.
Perhaps, but a little more attention to defence would have certainly helped and Materazzi knows that too.
Good decisions, bad results
The Italian must have been even more disappointed considering all the technical moves he made worked wonders. His decision to play John Arne Riise in central defence for his set-piece delivery and long-throws worked well.
The decision to go with four central midfielders with Hans Mulder holding back a little bit and Siam Hanghal and Raphael operating in a more attacking role helped Chennaiyin run the play and get those three goals. The decision to introduce Bernard Mendy as a forward player with his side chasing a goal paid off, Mendy providing the assist for Dudu’s third.
Yet for all the good things that his side did, there were also missteps as listed above that saw the game slip away from their hands eventually.
It’s a premature end to the 2016 ISL season for one of its favoured sides barring a stroke of extreme good luck and fortuitous results from around the league. It’s on to Goa now for Materazzi’s men for their final game with a chance to sign off with a win to get over an underwhelming season.