ISL 2017: Chennaiyin FC's Henrique Sereno is looking to win it all again, but one step at a time
When the 2016 Indian Super League season got underway last year, Henrique Sereno, his feet up, was back home in Portugal. Fast forward to the end and he was front and centre in ATK's victory celebrations, hoisting the trophy as the Kolkata outfit claimed their second ISL crown, as well as picking up the man-of-the-match award for his superb showing in the finale that included netting the crucial equalizer for his side. It was quite the fairy tale story for the Portuguese defender on his debut in the ISL.
While ATK were celebrating winning the tournament again, season two champions Chennaiyin FC were on the outside looking in, having finished a disappointing seventh after the league phase. Looking to bring the team back to the top, new coach John Gregory was keen to strengthen the team's defence. Sereno's impressive body of work with ATK led Chennaiyin to come calling for his services. And he has slotted right in as one of the central pillars of Chennaiyin's new-look defence, as he aims to continue his winning run in India.
"We're going to be able to see only at the end of the league what has changed", says Sereno as he settled down for a chat with Sportskeeda this past weekend. "Now, of course, we are happy we won 3-0, but the first match we conceded three goals. So we must keep working so that it doesn't happen again", the Portuguese defender adds.
Sereno is, of course, referring to Chennaiyin's first two matches, the first of which they lost 2-3 to FC Goa and the second which they won 3-0 beating NorthEast United, both at home at the 'Marina Arena'.
The first game saw coach Gregory go with a three-man backline, with Dhanachandra Singh and Mailson Alves playing either side of Sereno. It saw the team go down 0-3 in the first half itself as Goa took advantage. Changes were effected at half-time of that match with the switch to a back-four made, a change that stuck for the second game. That approach has so far seen the side score five goals and concede zero in three halves of football.
"Of course. I think in football nowadays if you have players who can play in every part of the pitch, it's good. In the first match, we went with three and it didn't work so good, but for sure we will be better if we have to play that again", says Sereno when asked about the options available to Chennaiyin with the depth in defence that they have this year.
A debut to remember
Until his arrival in India last year, Sereno had previously played in Portugal, Spain and Germany along with a short stint in Turkey. When asked what he learnt and liked about each country, Sereno says, "I am from Portugal, so I loved playing there. From Spain, the way they love the game and they play every single game the way it should be played. Like, the ball must pass to all the players and it's enjoyable."
"In Germany, it's more physical and you have to work very hard without the ball, which I didn't like so much. But it's an awesome league because the stadiums are always full and everything is very good. About Turkey, it's a little bit different, but I enjoyed a lot because they're fanatical. Here in India too, they're fanatic and I'm enjoying it so far."
Once he did get here, he went on to enjoy a fine run of success culminating in the title triumph. It's an experience he recalls fondly.
"It was unbelievable because I was at home the first two games in the league. And then there was an injury for Kolkata (ATK). Pablo Gallardo was injured and they called me," Sereno says explaining the sudden call-up last season.
"I signed up, lost the first two games, but after that I began to play well. When we reached the playoffs, I was feeling 100%. And it was amazing; we won against Mumbai and then the final, we won in Kerala in front of 70,000 people. We conquered the league," he adds with a sense of accomplishment.
Portuguese players and coaches have been regular winning exports to other nations as Sereno proved last year. This year, there are two Portuguese coaches in the ISL too. India's Under-17 side at the recently concluded World Cup was coached by another Portuguese, Luis Norton de Matos.
Marco Silva in the Premier League has gotten Watford into the top 10 and has seen his stock rise with the kind of football his Watford side have been playing. It's an upswing in fortunes for the European nation that began with the Cristiano Ronaldo-led side triumphing at the 2016 European championships.
For Sereno, it's a source of great happiness that his country has regained some of its prominence the last couple of years. "Of course!," he snaps when asked if Portuguese coaches getting more opportunities is something he's happy about.
"In Portugal, we know we are a small country, but when it comes to football we know about the sport and we know that we are good. And we export players and coaches to every part of the world. Even here in India. The U-17 national coach, and now João de Deus (NorthEast) and Miguel Portugal (Delhi Dynamos) in the ISL. It's a good thing for us", the experienced defender adds.
Leaving a winning side is never easy, but ATK did not retain him, making him available to be snapped up by other teams. While obviously still early at his new club, Sereno had plenty of praise for the manner in which the club's officials conduct business.
"I think the staff here is very professional. They do everything for the players. The players don't need to do much. And they're here to help which is a good step. I don't know about other clubs. At ATK it was very good, but here it's better", exclaims Sereno.
Sereno has been nothing, but impressive in Chennaiyin's first two outings. He has looked very sharp out on the field, always quick to snuff out danger and also impressive in playing good balls out from defence. He currently is joint-third in the league in tackles made, with six tackles to his name.
While acknowledging the good start and welcoming the ten-day break between games, Sereno is once again looking forward to a triumphant season. He is looking to emulate Fikru Tefera and Apoula Edel in winning back-to-back titles in the ISL. However, while there is no doubt in his mind about what the ultimate objective is, he knows that there is a more primary task.
"Of course, when we come to India we have a dream of becoming the champion. But first, we must reach the playoffs", Sereno adds with a smile in the end.