This past Sunday was a day of eager anticipation for the thousand odd people inside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai. As the clock struck 16:30 hours, they prepared to welcome two teams who were making their bows on a national stage for the very first time. Two unknowns that led to much uncertainty of what would transpire out on the pitch, the only thing unanimous about the occasion being the two teams’ relative anonymity.
“For sure, with the time we had. We'll definitely get better. Should have gotten three points, but we're happy with the point” - the words of Robin Charles Raja, coach of Chennai City FC, after the game. He was talking about the performance of his team after their opener in the 2017 I-League against fellow debutants Minerva Punjab ended 0-0.
For both teams, Sunday was a landmark day. The duo finds themselves in this year's I-League after the withdrawal of the Goa teams (Salgaocar, Dempo and Sporting Club de Goa) led to spots opening up for new teams.
For Surinder Singh's Minerva, it was a step up from the I-League second division where they kicked about last season. Whilst for Chennai City, it's a brand new experience altogether having previously only played regionally in the Chennai League.
Short preparation time
With news of their involvement in this year's I-League coming very late (just about a month ago), time was in short order for both these sides, especially Chennai City.
A day before the game, Raja wore an assuaging smile for despite some teething issues, a squad of players was at least ready and good to go.
The performance in the end on the big day was good and the clash of the newbies provided a decent, entertaining encounter that was in no way a drab affair as can sometimes happen. Minerva had a couple of chances to score, Chennai created more and better openings and perhaps should have won the game, but the fact that they avoided defeat was a positive for both coaches afterwards.
“It's better not to lose. Initially, when we went in, they didn't know us, we didn't know them. Initially, they were dominating, but as it went on and we got more possession, we were creating the opportunities. Happy not to lose though”, reflected Raja when asked if he thought it was a case of three points missed.
A quest into the unknown
The new boys on the block have managed to cobble together a decent looking team with some seasoned veterans being roped in to be a part of this quest into the unknown.
Dharmaraj Ravanan (on loan from FC Pune City), a local Tamil Nadu lad, captains the side and is part of the senior core in the team. Ravanan led Churchill Brothers to the I-League crown (2013) and Federation Cup (2014) triumphs as captain and has also had stints with Dempo, Mohun Bagan and Mahindra United. In the latest Indian Super League season, he had an average campaign with Pune City. Returning home, Ravanan has the opportunity to put that right.
Four players who turned out for the city's ISL outfit, Chennaiyin FC, have also been drafted in on loan - goalkeeper Karanjit Singh, midfielders Zakeer Mundampara and Dhanapal Ganesh and full-back/winger Abhishek Das.
Experienced midfielder Denson Devadas has also been signed and the combination of Denson and Dhanapal in that holding midfield role served Chennai City very well in their opener as they helped the team control possession and establish a good ground passing game.
Minerva started the game aggressively pressing the home side, but after about 15 minutes, Chennai City were able to set the tempo of the game. After the initial flourish, Minerva were more reliant on long balls to their forwards and wingers while Chennai tried to play more on the ground. The aforementioned combination of Denson-Dhanapal orchestrated proceedings very effectively indeed.
“That's why we got them”, Raja quickly responded. “Initially Dhanapal, being a home player, we took him after Ravanan. We had Zakeer earlier. For Chennaiyin he was playing more of a defensive role, but I feel he can play more of an attacking role. Denson, we knew that if he was free (available), he would fit into our team. And it really worked.”
Along with Dhanapal, two of the other Chennaiyin boys did well too. Abhishek Das, usually employed as a full-back, played as the right winger and made quite a few impressive runs down that flank, combining very well with Haroon Amiri ahead and Joseph Clemente behind to make that right flank a steady source of attacks for Chennai City.
Team still lacking match fitness and yet to gel
After the game, we found out that a lot of the players were in fact still not up to speed in terms of match fitness. Amiri had arrived only two days prior to match day and Das had been recovering from a minor knock.
“Amiri two days, Zakeer one day”, Raja indicated on the number of days those two players had to integrate themselves into the squad.
The rest of the Indian players signed up are mostly loanees from other teams with a few permanent signings comprising youngsters and experienced I-League campaigners.
The four foreigners in the squad feature two Brazilians (both forwards), one Nigerian and one Afghan, the previously mentioned Amiri.
Nigerian defender Anyichie Echezona Celestine (played 42 times for Mohun Bagan previously between 2012-14) started in central defence and together with Ravanan formed a solid unit. One Brazilian started - Charles De Souza - while the other replaced him for the last 10 minutes.
The latter, birthname Marcus Vinicius, but going by the moniker of 'Tank’, was lively once he came on. Built very much like the military grade weapon that his nickname suggests, he was able to use that physical prowess to good use with his pace to cause problems for the opposition. Definitely, one to keep an eye on.
Hopefull for the future
You could say that Chennai City's performance was better than what most people expected from a brand new side. Of course, one showing is never indicative of what is to come, but the coach and players of Chennai City can certainly take comfort in the fact that they gave a good account of themselves in their first outing.
Karanjit Singh was named man-of-the-match for his impressive showing between the sticks. The veteran stopper picked up where his coach left off, harping a tune from a now familiar continuum.
“Some have trained only for 30-40 minutes. We have had no time. We have in fact not even trained together for one week. After two or three matches you will be able to see properly. That's why we are happy to take one point here as we have not played together for even one week”, Karanjit made clear.
“Time’ seems to be the buzzword around this team. From very less time to assemble this team to a little more time for all of the parts to fall in place, it can be safely assumed that the true picture about this group of players will only emerge in time.
“I knew that they had the stuff in them. Limited time we had, the performance was good”, Chennai City's coach reflected.
That's a good starting point as any.Published 11 Jan 2017, 10:11 IST