ISL 2018-19: Curse of the Champions - Chennaiyin FC look to salvage their season through AFC Cup
Bengaluru FC were just heartbroken when the local hero from Chennai, Dhanpal Ganesh scored the injury-time winner in the league stage to silence Kanteerava Stadium. The league leaders wanted revenge, and beating their arch-rivals in the final of the tournament would mean everything to them.
Sunil Chhetri thought he had given the perfect start and gained momentum in the finals, beating Karanjit Singh in the ninth minute of the game. The whole stadium was bouncing in joy, but two stands at Kanteerava were in pin drop silence with no reply whatsoever until then vice-captain Mailson Alves leapfrogged everybody from a set-piece to equalize the score eight minutes after the hosts opened the scoreline.
It was the Brazilian who changed the team talk in the half time with a header from another corner to put Chennaiyin in the lead for the first time. Raphael Augusto scored a fantastic goal giving Gurpreet Singh Sandhu no chance. Miku pulled one back in dying seconds of the game, but it was not good enough to salvage anything from the tournament.
That was it, Chennaiyin FC were crowned as the Indian Super League winners for the second time in three years, making them the joint highest title-holders with ATK. The successive season for Chennaiyin as ISL Champions has gone downhill on both occasions.
Curse of Champions or bad transfer strategy?
After putting up plenty of heroic displays last seasons, fans will be wondering about the predicaments they are facing right now. Is it down to the curse of being Champions or bad transfer business?
The similar pattern can always be seen after being crowned as the Champions. Following the 2014 season, ATK failed to keep their majority of the squad by shipping out Jofre, Luis Garcia, Cavin Lobo, Climax Lawrence, and Josemi. After the second title victory, Pritam Kotal, Lalrindika Ralte, Juan Belencoso, Iain Hume, Stephen Pearson, Ofentse Nato, Borja Fernandez, and Javi Lara were the ones to head into the exit door.
The Marina Machans were struggling for goals upfront during the second edition of the Indian Super League. The signature of Stiven Mendoza changed the fortunes as they went on to win the trophy. But, they lost plenty of players in the transfer market who were crucial to their setup. It was always going to be tough to lure the Colombian to the subcontinent for another time, but the Blues did not keep other players as well. The departure of Manuele Blasi, Apoula Edel, Bruno Pelissari, Mailson Alves, and Alessandro Potenza were enough to deceive Chennaiyin.
The Blues made plenty of shuffles in the transfer market before the kick start of this season. The departures of Henrique Sereno, Bikramjit Singh, Jaime Gavilan, and Rene Mihelic were enough to ruin this season for them.
For instance, Chennaiyin were brilliant when Bikramjit was on the pitch last season. With him, they lost only once in 13 games, and without him they were able to win only two games out of possible seven, tasting four defeats in the process. Besides, the idea of letting Bikramjit go despite Dhanpal's long term injury portrays that panic decisions will cost you at times.
In the hopes of building the club by using different methodologies, they lose the core of the title-winning side and suffer in the successive season. The club must try keeping their best players at any cost to defend the title. They are the reason for their own downfall.
Going into the new season with plenty of expectations, the new signings including Carlos Salom, Eli Sabia, Andrea Orlandi, and Isaac Vanmalsawma have not clicked which has been the worrying part for John Gregory.
Sitting rock bottom of the League table with five points, there is no chance of qualifying for the knockout stages of the tournament. It is not only the results that are concerning the whole club, but the players' form is the most worrying part. Their only win this season came against Pune City, who were adapting to the methods of the interim manager Pradhyum Reddy.
Possible strengthening before the recommence of the season
However, to boost the chances of doing well in the forthcoming months, the reigning Champions have finalised deals for Kerala Blasters duo CK Vineeth and Halicharan Narzary. They are also eyeing a central defender in the transfer market to cut down the leakage of goals.
Apart from signings, Jeje Lalpekhlua found the back of the net against Thailand and Anirudh Thapa fared well against Thailand and United Arab Emirates in the AFC Asian Cup 2019, which comes as a massive boost for the reigning Champions.
Can they salvage something from AFC Cup?
Indian sides have not generally had a good run in the AFC Cups, with Bengaluru FC being the only exception to what has, in recent years, been a rule set in stone. Chennaiyin's arch-rivals famously reached the AFC Cup final in 2016, when the lost to Iraq's Air Force Club.
Chennaiyin will be playing against either Colombo FC (Sri Lanka) or Transport United (Bhutan) in the playoffs for a spot in the group stages of the competition.
Colombo FC are topping the league table, whereas Transport United were Champions of last season. The first leg will be played away from home for Chennaiyin, on February 20 and the second leg will be held at TransStadia Arena in Ahmedabad. Minerva Punjab, who will also be representing India at the AFC Cup, will play their home ties at the same stadium.
If they find a solution for defensive calamities and Gregory Nelson & Jeje find their mojo up front, there is no doubt that John Gregory would be promising tons of goals and even wins in the second half of the season.