Four playoff appearances, on two of those occasions going onto win the Indian Super League (ISL) (2015 and 2017-18), and finishing runners-up once (2019-20), Chennaiyin FC have already built a reputation among the Indian top-flight league’s outfits in the short history of the tournament, becoming the second-most successful team after ATK Mohun Bagan.
They have been a force to be reckoned with, and last season was no less than a miracle. The then-coach John Gregory endured a horrific start, winning just one out of the first six matches, which took them rick-bottom of the table, and Chennaiyin needed a change in management. They then turned to Owen Coyle, who led Burnley to the Premier League in 2009, and was declared Premier League Manager of the Month in November 2010 and March 2012 in a separate stint at Bolton Wanderers.
Sure, managing in India is a challenging task for any foreign manager who is new to the country, but Coyle and his men scripted a fairytale comeback, losing only three matches since his appointment in December 2019 (including the final), finishing runners-up to the then-ATK earlier in March.
Coyle then left the club for Jamshedpur FC in August this year, and Lithuanian striker Nerijus Valskis followed suit.
He was then replaced by experienced manager Czaba Laszlo, who is considered a Miracle Man’ by the African press for guiding Uganda to their highest ranking of 91 from 181.
Laszlo has his own backroom staff, and Chennaiyin have been quite busy in the off-season, finding replacements for the likes of Valskis.
Here, we take a look at the Marina Machans’ strengths, weaknesses and players to watch out for:
The Marina Machans have had a revamp of sorts in the off-season, bringing in a dearth of foreign players. They have Bosnian centre-back Enes Sipovic, who will act as a direct replacement for former skipper Lucian Goian in defence, while Slovakian forward Jakub Sylvestr also joins on a one-year deal on the back of some experienced stints in Europe, including clubs like FC Nurnberg and Slovan Bratislava.
He will be aiming to fill in the void left by Valskis, and can play either as a centre-forward or even function on both the wing positions.
One major retention this season has been of Brazilian defender Eli Sabia. He shared the defensive wall with Goian last season, and this time round task will be cut out for him to lead the defensive line.
Sabia has had two different spells in Chennaiyin, one with the team in 2016, and another since returning in 2018. Sabia has been a constant in the Chennaiyin lineup, and has not missed a minute of play over the last two seasons, only missing a total of 82 minutes across his career in Chennai.
What adds to the dynamic of this Chennai setup is the inclusion of Anirudh Thapa and the newcomer Memo Moura.
While the experience of Anirudh Thapa will once again come into play, Memo, as he is often called, has been playing in the ISL since 2016, and is a versatile and solid player. He can either play as a defensive midfielder or even as a centre-back, so his addition adds depth to the Chennaiyin lineup.
Inconsistent defence has been a cause for concern for Laszlo’s men, and that is where the team must prove solidity early on to be a title contender. While they netted 32 goals in the league stage last term, Chennaiyin have given away 26 goals, the most among the teams who finished in the top four this season.
They will most certainly miss Goian in the back-line, who had been influential in changing the team’s fortunes in specific matches last season.
Their defensive frailties were once again prevalent in their 1-0 and 3-0 defeats to Mumbai City FC and FC Goa respectively earlier in November during pre-season friendlies.
Goalkeeper Vishal Kaith has been the major wall of defence for the South Indian club, and in the 20 of 21 matches he played, he managed only four clean sheets, only the sixth best among the teams who kept most clean sheets.
Players to watch out for
Slovakian forward Jakub Sylvestr might be unfamiliar to the Indian domestic football setup, but is bound to create miracles, just like he did during a German Bundesliga game for FC Nurnberg. Back in 2014, he stole the headlines in Germany with a quickfire counterattack during a Bundesliga game, coming within just nine seconds.
Afterall, ‘Miracle Man’ Laszlo will expect more miracles from the 31-year-old, who will be expected to provide attacking returns for his side.
He is also a recipient of the 2. Bundesliga’s top-scorer’s award, netting 15 goals for Erzgebirge Aue.
He is coming on the back of netting five goals in 17 games during a stint with Israeli club Hapoel Haifa.
The 22-year-old Anirudh Thapa will be Chennai’s go-to midfielder, and will aim to use his attacking potential to the fullest. And with Lallianzuala Chhangte and Fatkhulloev on the wings, it will give Thapa to play much more freely and create game-changing opportunities.
Thapa will team up with Rafael Crivellaro, and both consistently provided assists, adding a combined 14 among them, so both of them will be crucial for Chennaiyin to produce an attractive brand of football under Lazlo.
The Marina Machans will be expected to go all guns blazing, and their defence will be tested in the earlier stages. If they maintain clean sheets or at least concede less number of goals, then hopes will be high, and CFC could go all out for a record-equalling third title.
Their midfield and attack look settled at least on paper, but Vishal Kaith should not let his guard down, for their defence to be reliable and trustworthy in an ever-growing and an ever-competitive league, this time with as many as 11 teams.
And also, goals will not be a worry for Chennai, with a dearth of talent, and a lot of backup options to choose from.
Squad: Goalkeepers: BY Revanth, Vishal Kaith, Karanjit Singh, Samik Mitra
Defenders: Lalchhuanmawia Fanai, Enes Sipovic, Edwin Sydney Vanspaul, Reagan Singh, Eli Sabia, Jerry Lalrinzuala, Remi Aimol, Balaji Ganesan, Aqib Nawab, Deepak Tangri.
Midfielders: Fatkhulo Fatkhulloev (captain), Thoi Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Memo Moura, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Rafael Crivellaro, Abhijit Sarkar, Srinivasan Pandiyan, Germanpreet Singh, Dhanpal Ganesh.
Forwards: Jakub Sylvestr, Aman Chetri, Rahim Ali, Isma.