AFC Cup 2019: "Plenty of teams want to be in this position," says Chennaiyin coach John Gregory on eve of group stage debut
Former ISL champs Chennaiyin after securing qualification with a win over Colombo FC in the qualifiers a few weeks back return to The Arena where they will be playing all their home games in the AFC Cup group phase as opposed to their regular home venue of Chennai owing to logistical constraints. And their first opponents are the former I-League champions Minerva Punjab.
Chennaiyin coach John Gregory expressed his delight at taking part in the continental competition. Speaking ahead of the game Gregory said, “It’s my first experience of playing against Minerva. We saw them in the I League last year and they deserve their spot in the tournament (AFC Cup).”
The Englishman also spoke about playing in Ahmedabad, mentioning the good experience they had against Colombo FC. “We enjoyed playing here against Colombo. It’s a fantastic pitch and we’re looking forward to playing our home games here.”
For the first time, all season Chennaiyin have managed to string together back-to-back wins of any form. After beating Colombo 1-0 in the AFC Cup qualification 2nd leg, they beat Mumbai City 2-0 in the Super Cup.
Asked if the team is finding momentum from those results Gregory agreed that it was a positive turn for the team. “We’ve enjoyed the last couple of games. We’ve looked strong defensively; Jeje has found his scoring touch and Vineeth scored a fantastic goal (vs. Mumbai City). The boys are still working hard and are obviously keen to finish the season on a high.”
“Physically and mentally I think the boys are in good condition,” added Gregory.
Chennaiyin midfielder Thoi Singh was also present at the press conference. He is the leading goal scorer for them this season with 4 goals and the Manipuri spoke of the work being put in in training that has helped him out.
“We worked hard to enter into the group stage of this competition and put a lot of effort into it. The way we’ve been training the coaching staff has been encouraging me to get up and down the pitch quickly; that’s how we practice and that’s helping on the pitch. I have been encouraged to get into the box more because there will be chances,” said Thoi.
Minerva Punjab coach Sachin Badhade meanwhile was looking ahead to the encounter with his fellow Indian side and was quite bullish about his team’s chances.
”We have prepared very well for this match and are going to go all out for the two points,” said Badhade.
Scoring goals has been a problem for Minerva as the team managed to score just 11 goals in their 19 league games. But while acknowledging the problem Badhade said that it is likely to be a thing of the past.
“Striking has been an issue for us. But I feel it won’t be so. Our Indian players are getting into form and new players like Samuel Lalhimpuia (on loan from Shillong Lajong) and the foreigners have given the squad a boost,” said Badhade.
The Minerva coach termed the match “a prestigious occasion” for them. He also expressed his belief that the fight for progression from the group is likely going to be between themselves and Chennaiyin.
“I think it’s a platform mainly for two teams – Minerva and Chennaiyin. Between us whoever wins will be the winner of the group I think,” added Badhade.
Dhanapal Ganesh and Jerry Lalrinzuala have returned to the Chennaiyin squad following their injury layoffs and Gregory was pleased to have them back. Ganesh played 35 minutes as a substitute against Mumbai City in their Super Cup game, but the coach was cautious about both expecting both players to slot right back in immediately.
”Ganesh and Jerry are obviously not still 100% fit. But they were regular members of our league winning squad last season. It gives me two extra quality players ready to come on if needed,” concluded Gregory.
Minerva meanwhile have made two loan signings to help with their AFC Cup campaign - Samuel Lalmuanpuia from Shillong Lajong FC and Nigerian Kareem Nurain from Aizawl FC. They've also brought in Trinidadian defender Robert Primus.
Both teams have a full squad to choose from as neither coach expressed any injury concerns ahead of the game.