With a place in the playoffs of season four of the Indian Super League already secure, Chennaiyin FC will take to the pitch on Saturday night for their final game of the league phase. They will be at home as they play host to Mumbai City FC who will not be progressing to the semis.
Despite that scenario, Chennaiyin coach John Gregory believes it is important his team contest this final match well.
"It's a big game for us. Players are playing for places in the semis. It's really up to those guys how they go about the game tomorrow," said Gregory speaking ahead of the game.
"We obviously want to finish the season strongly. It's our 18th regular season game. The previous 17 have been very well contested. We've made our mark I think this season. We managed to secure our playoff place with one game to go. And I'm very delighted with the way the boys have been able to go about their work this year. We have one more match to go and we have to make sure we go about it in a professional manner," added Gregory.
The champions from season two are currently third in the table with 29 points and can finish anywhere from second to fourth depending on the result of their game tomorrow as well as those of the other contenders. If Chennaiyin win tomorrow, then they are assured of second place.
When asked if he had any preference in terms of playing the home leg of the semis first or second, Gregory felt it didn't make much of a difference: "We've played the other four teams in the top five away from home this season and won on their territory. And as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I think the top five teams have all secured more points away from home."
"Everybody's done well on the road which is unusual because obviously back in the UK and in Western Europe when you have home advantage, you tend to use it. It doesn't seem to happen in India in the ISL. It's completely the opposite. Teams have done a lot better on the road than at home. So I don't think it presents any advantage if you play your home leg first or second. We'll take whatever comes our way," said Gregory.
Such an attitude is exactly what Gregory felt had held the side in good stead, helping them weather difficult phases during the season thus far.
"It's really been the kind of attitude we've had this season. Whatever comes our way, we manage to overcome it and deal with it. We don't spend any time whingeing about it, complaining about it. I got a three-and-a-half game ban, just got on with it. We've had a 15-and-a-half hour journey to Jamshedpur, just got on with it."
"Our boys’ attitude right throughout has been first class. They've not got too excited when we've won and likewise when results have gone against us, we've not gotten too down about it. We've managed to pick ourselves up very quickly. I've got such an amazing group of guys and they've just been incredible," said Gregory.
He felt that all of the praise and adulation that his side has received has been fully deserved: "I've been around many football teams, many squads. I've never known a group quite like this one. Just an absolute pleasure to be around, to work with. For their attitude, professionalism and the way they look after themselves, they fully deserve all the plaudits they're getting at the moment. I truly hope for them that we can take it one step further."
With nothing at stake except their final position in the top four, Gregory admitted that he is likely to make a couple of changes and give players on the outside a chance.
"Yeah, there's a few of the boys who haven't got a lot of game time. As I've said earlier, they've just been so supportive of the guys who've been in the team (playing XI). We've literally had all 25 players fit and available for almost every game. We've hardly had any injuries at all through the season. So I will make one or two changes tomorrow. I think they thoroughly deserve a chance," the former Aston Villa manager exclaimed.
He mentioned that if they were to impress, they might be in with a chance to feature in the semis as well: "Who knows? If the guys who come in perform well, impress and fit into the system, I will have a selection headache. I've always said this season that I've had a headache picking the bench because we have so many to choose from."
Gregory continued: "One or two will get their chances tomorrow and it's down to them if they can stake a claim for a place. If they put in a good performance then they come into contention for the semifinals."
Coming back to the semis, when asked if he had a preference for their opponent, Gregory bluntly replied in the negative: "We're just incredibly happy we're in the final four, that was our target. I was asked this at the start of the season, what our target was for the season and it was to get into the playoffs. You get into the playoffs, you have a chance."
He added: "Obviously, in three years, the teams that's finished top of the league in the regular season has never gone on to lift the cup. So I was just happy to finish in the top four. And we'll wait and see what happens."
The playoffs though he said are not the primary concern for him and his team at the moment as they looking at tomorrow's encounter with Mumbai for now.
"I just really want to focus on tomorrow and not worry too much about the playoffs. In all honesty it's not on my mind at the moment. It's the old adage, take it one game at a time. We're just focused on Mumbai tomorrow, just make sure everyone is ready and prepared."
"And once that game's out of the way, we can look forward to the playoffs. Obviously we're yet to know who we're facing next week. I just hope it's not Man City," he concluded with a chuckle.Published 02 Mar 2018, 21:40 IST