Winning is an art. In the theatre of sport, not every individual or team has the courage to embrace the burning flames of victory. But some walk purposefully toward as if the heat of victory were their water. And drink from the chalice as if they knew no other form of existence.
Chennaiyin set the flames alight on their Indian Super League campaign with an enormously courageous effort, pulling away to victory in the dying moments of their game against Hyderabad FC. In a game that looked set to meander into a sweaty draw, the two times found the net thrice in injury time to set up a thrilling finish to the game.
In the middle of a painful drought, Chennai has been struggling to impose their rich heritage on the league. The journey from champions to bottom of the table has been a precipitous fall for the English manager who tasted championship glory on his debut with the club.
Despite making significant changes to the lineup, Chennai seemed stuck in the washers. Big losses to Goa and Bengaluru did not do much to their flagging morale. But it's the nature of champion teams to dig deep and find answers under the most pressing circumstances.
No one will be naive enough to assume that a resilient effort against a neighbor at the bottom could fix all of Chennaiyin's problems. But they have tasted success after a prolonged drought and this could finally trigger the kind of energy they need so desperately to revive their fortunes.
The two-time champions from Chennai, hosting this game at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium had the measure of their opponents for much of the game. But with Hyderabad holding firm at the base, John Gregory's boys were finding it hard to press home the advantage.
The hosts finally pushed forth with a goal in injury time from their substitute Andre Schembri, only to be returned the favor just two minutes later. Matthew Kilgallon helped Hyderabad draw even with a brilliant goal.
Not to be outdone, Nerijus Valskis sneaked one into the bottom right corner with the last meaningful kick of the game for a hard-earned victory.
Down for the count early this season, Chennai entered the game searching for its soul. They had lost three of their first four games and only achieved a tame goalless draw against Mumbai in the last week of October. Not only did they lose, but FC Goa and Bengaluru FC also handed them a drubbing scoring three goals each against a clean sheet.
After a dismal performance of last season, which nearly cost the manager his job, Gregory was hoping that the arrival of Schembri, Rafael Crivellaro and Valskis would afford the team much-needed stability. More importantly, he was depending on the combined brilliance of Dhanpal Ganesh and Anirudh Thapa to create opportunities for the beleaguered team.
The sheet has been dry for far too long. Chennai, while suffering 13 losses last year, hadn't scored a goal for 765 minutes, until the duck was broken by the strike from Schembri.
Soon after Schembri pushed Chennai in front, Hyderabad earned a set-piece. The game was slipping away and the visitors needed a savior to rise and deliver. That is exactly what Kilgallon did, soaring above the Chennai defense to head an equalizer past a stranded Karanjit Singh.
But even as the game reached its dying moments, there was some more drama. Valskis picked one through from Schembri and ran deep. His pace and direction opened up the Hyderabad defense and there wasn't much that a desperate Kamaljit Singh could do about it.
It was a painful outcome for the Hyderabadi goalkeeper, above all. The man was a rock at the post for much of this match. In the moments after the opening minutes of the second half, Kamaljit showed amazing reflexes and force of flight to keep the sheet clean in the face of some determined punching by Chennai.
In the end, though this game was all about aside in strife reconnecting with their DNA. After finishing last in the previous season, that too as the defending champions, Chennai will be eager to make amends.
Coach Gregory received an extension at the end of the last campaign, but it was only for a season. Even if he had to remit his duties, the coach would like to fall fighting like a soldier rather than slip into the shadows with his head hung in shame.
The coach and owners can take plenty of pride from this match. Anirudh Thapa played a passionate match, making 63 touches and being present on the pitch for his team through an intense game.
Valskis showed once again that hanging on to the last minute in sport is an invaluable trait and he earned rich dividends for himself and the team with his last gasp effort.
It is perhaps a sharp awareness of their situation that helped Chennai show some imposing, purposeful football after a lengthy period of lame existence.
This team has finally tasted the roar of approval from their troubled legion of fans. It could be just the fuel they need to rediscover the winning touch that has eluded them for a long time.Published 26 Nov 2019, 20:29 IST