ISL 2016: Chennaiyin need Bernard Mendy back to his best and quick
Scoring a goal on your debut in a brand new league in a country where the game of football is looking to carve out a name for itself is a great way to launch yourself into people's memory. But when that goal is a bicycle kick, and you are a defender performing said bicycle kick and rippling the net for a goal, then you etch yourself permanently as an indelible mark into the minds of those in attendance.
In two full seasons since then Mendy has gone on to become a key part of this side, with a semifinal showing in the first year followed by a title run in the second. The former Paris Saint-Germain and Hull City defender, now 35, has been the one constant in Chennaiyin’s backline amidst all the defenders who've come and gone until now, including the likes of former Manchester United man Mikael Silvestre and Italy and AC Milan legend Alessandro Nesta.
And he's become a popular figure here at the club, with his powerful performances and affable and at times playful personality making him quite the fan favorite. He's even the league's highest scoring defender with four goals to his name. And after being vice-captain previously, Mendy has become club captain this year with the departure of Elano.
The seasonal blots
Yet, with Mendy, there have been about three to four games in each ISL season so far where he's been completely off the pace. In these games he’s been error-prone and has over-committed, leaving huge gaps and in general leaves his goal exposed. The good thing is he makes up for it in the other games with some very good showings, but in these games, he tends to be easy pickings for his opponents.
He had his first one this season in Chennaiyin’s second game, versus the Delhi Dynamos, a match they lost 1-3, and quite frankly could have lost by a bigger margin. He was bad in this one, constantly chirping to his teammates and coach in frustration, looking half-hearted in everything that he did as the young, sprightly Kean Lewis, Marcelo Leite and Richard Gadze ran circles around him and his defence.
Even in last season's title-winning run, these wobbles were there to be seen.
John Stiven Mendoza, Elano Blumer and Bruno Pelissari (all three no longer at the club) will be the ones that will be fondly remembered for their goals and attacking exploits that powered Chennaiyin’s title run, but one of the bedrocks of their success was the defensive backline that shipped only 19 goals in 17 matches (the lowest), while putting in 519 tackles, the highest amongst all teams.
In season one, they had conceded 24 goals (the most out of all teams) and made 355 tackles with one less game played. The turnaround was huge, coach Marco Materazzi managing to drill in some defensive discipline to a mixture that boasted concrete attacking strength.
Mendy & Mailson - a partnership that worked wonders
Mendy along with Brazilian Mailson Alves and Italian Alessandro Potenza played at the heart of Chennaiyin’s defence last year with coach Marco Materazzi constantly shuffling amongst the three for the two places. Mailson proved to be a standout defender for them, with his alertness to danger being remarkable, always quick with his clearances. Potenza offered a steady, but mediocre hand while Mendy oscillated between the very impressive and very forgettable.
The Frenchman made 14 appearances last season, two off the bench as a substitute. His team were victorious in eight of those fixtures. However, there were only two wins in the first seven matches that he featured in. Against Atletico de Kolkata at home in their season opener, Mendy looked extremely shaky after coming on as a halftime sub for Potenza. He gave away a penalty for handball too (though it was saved).
In the home game against FC Goa, his clumsy foul led to another penalty that gave Goa their second goal in their 2-0 win. He also had instances of miscommunication with his goalkeeper Karanjit Singh, injuring him inadvertently in the process on one play.
Really good at his best
Having said that, though, when he got it together, and both Mendy and the entire team really turned a corner after the huge 4-1 home win against Kerala Blasters, he churned out power-packed match winning performances. He was scoring goals, blocking shots, making last-ditch tackles, towering in the air, you name it.
While only two wins came in his first seven appearances, Chennaiyin ended up winning all, but one, of the final seven with Mendy putting in two man-of-the-match performances in back-to-back games no less, against Delhi and Mumbai City FC at the 'Marina Arena’ in Chennai. It had a lot to do with him playing with Mailson in six of those games, establishing a very good combination at the back.
New partner, new worries
This year Mailson isn't around and Mendy has so far found himself paired with the club's new marquee player, another 35-year-old former Liverpool man John Arne Riise. Their partnership has certainly not clicked yet with Mendy certainly not helped by playing alongside a 36-year-old, making for a distinct lack of pace between them; both marauding, pacy (Mendy actually boasting explosive pace at one time) full-backs at their peaks, now rescinded to playing more centrally in this late stage of their career.
To go with that, for the first time, Mendy is coming into the ISL season on the back of a bit of a turbulent period. He opted to sign with i-league giants East Bengal in January after the ISL triumph with Chennaiyin, but things didn't quite work out as planned. His spell quickly turned sour with the Frenchman becoming embroiled in a bitter battle behind the scenes between coach and management that led to a very toxic dressing room atmosphere.
Both of these factors have definitely played a part in Mendy’s sub-par start to the season.
Chennaiyin fans will be hoping that that spell hasn't done too much damage to their captain's confidence and psyche. They will also be hoping him and Riise develop a better understanding sooner rather than later for more than the ones up front, the Super Machans’ campaign will depend on Mendy and the state of their defence.
Well, at least one wobbly game is already out of the way. If the remaining quota can get done with quickly as well, then Chennaiyin’s St. Bernard should be back and ready to go in his side's bid to rescue their title defence.