Chennaiyin FC rounded off their league phase with a win over Mumbai City FC at home. The Blues from Chennai, who had already booked their place in the semifinals of season four of the ISL, free from pressure for this last game, edged out Mumbai with a 1-0 win courtesy of a second-half penalty from Rene Mihelic. The win ensures that Chennaiyin will finish second in the table.
Ahead of the game, Chennaiyin coach John Gregory had spoken about making changes to his regular eleven. He did make them and they were wholesale with eight new faces getting a chance. The entire first-choice back-four was rested along with striker Jeje Lalpekhlua - they weren't even named on the bench. So too goalkeeper Karanjit Singh and defensive midfielder Dhanapal Ganesh.
Gregory says he owed it to them for the work they had put in - "We've had five matches in 23 days in the month of February, which has been a huge amount of work on the boys that have played those games. I usually don't change the team much. I tend to use the same 13 or 14 players usually. And those five games actually got us into the playoffs. Obviously, Delhi did us a favour in the week, but those five matches really got us into the playoffs. And it required an incredible effort from the players in terms of their energy levels, the endurance, the training, the travelling, the recovery, the preparation."
"Fortunately Delhi did us a favour and I was able to rest a vast majority of those players who featured in those five games. They put us in a fantastic position in the league and I kind of owed it to them to give them a breather, to give them a rest. We got the opportunity today to rest a few of them, we took that opportunity."
It was also a case of rewarding those players who've been sitting on the sidelines as Gregory had mentioned on Friday. And he was very happy with the attitude shown by those who played Saturday night.
"We've also had another 12 or 13 boys who've spent a lot of time just watching this season either in the dugout or in the stands. But as you saw today their attitude never wavered. 18 games now, we've been together since the first of October last year. We live and breathe with each other. We're always around each other and that showed today. The boys that came in showed unbelievable professionalism, energy, fire and fight", said Gregory.
"There was no way, no way Mumbai were going to score today. Our boys were just not going to allow that to happen", Gregory bristled. "For me, it epitomizes everything about the squad; it's an incredible group of players. As I suggested yesterday, haven't quite come across a group like this one, just so together and so professional."
He had mentioned that good performances could be rewarded with further opportunities in the semis and Gregory said that he does indeed have a selection headache on his hands now.
"I've got a big problem now in terms of selecting the team (for the semis). It was just an incredible performance from everybody today. So it's really refreshing when players perform as they did today. I just know that whatever team I pick, whenever we play the first leg of the semifinal, they're all ready, they all know what to do and how to play. We managed to keep a clean sheet today against Mumbai who've scored a lot of goals this season", he said.
The Chennaiyin coach though did single out one player for whom he was very happy: "I will single out one player; I was happy to see Dhana (Dhanachandra Singh) don that captain's armband in the last 10 minutes or so. It's been great to see him since he's been here from day one, he's been part of the journey and he helped keep a clean sheet today. So I was really delighted for him in particular. He did exceptionally well, threw his body in the way of some goal-bound efforts. Certainly in the second half when we came under a bit of pressure, he stood head and shoulders above everybody else. He really marshalled that back-four, a very young and inexperienced one, and helped them keep a clean sheet. So I was delighted for him."
Gregory also admitted that the players and staff were in a more relaxed state of mind thanks to qualification already secured.
"I couldn't affect Delhi's performance the other night, but they did do us a favour because of which we could relax a little bit. I did get a text message from one of the ISL coaches who's side has already qualified saying 'The suffering is over' which I thought was very nice. And yes for us the suffering was over a few days back and we were able to enjoy the last couple of nights, as you could see there was a good spirit amongst the players", he said.
While three teams have booked their place in the playoffs, the fourth and final spot is still up for grabs and Jamshedpur FC and FC Goa will battle it out on Sunday evening for that coveted spot.
Asked if he'll be watching, Gregory replied, "Yes, I will be watching and whatever happens I suppose. So yes, we'll probably sit together and enjoy the match tomorrow. It really is a fascinating game, you know there really is a contrast of styles. But you know I wouldn't be able to separate them as to who to go for. I think it's going to be a really great watch for the public who do tune in. Might not be so enjoyable for Sergio and Steve, standing on the sidelines for 90-95 minutes."
Chennaiyin will play either FC Pune City or FC Goa in the semifinals depending on Sunday's result.