Can Chennaiyin wrap up their miraculous turnaround with a fairy-tale ending?

Chennaiyin FC are just one step away from the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2019-20 title and if they win the final on March 14, will become the first team in the history to lift the trophy thrice. The Marina Machans have already established a trend of becoming the champions in alternate season, having clinched top honour in 2015 and then again in 2017-18, and will look to carry on the routine with another piece of silverware on Saturday.

Despite their 4-2 loss against FC Goa at the Fatorda in the second leg of their semi-final clash, a convincing 4-1 first leg win in Chennai ensured the Machans' passage to the final. Due to play ATK FC in the title decider, here's a look at the key components of the squad which will play a major role in Saturday's title decider.

The head coach

When Owen Coyle came to India to take over the reins of the team from former head coach John Gregory, Chennaiyin were struggling in ninth position with just five points from six matches and a place in the knockout stages seemed a distant dream at best. The 53-year-old seemed to have an immediate impact as Chennaiyin picked up four points from his first two matches in charge. However, Coyle’s Chennaiyin lost the next two on a trot. Despite the disappointments, the improvement in the team’s performance levels were visible on the pitch and it seemed only a matter of time before Coyle’s work with the team would yield the desired results. The question, though, was if it would be too late or not.

The answer would come soon enough with Chennaiyin going on a stupendous eight-match unbeaten run (six wins and two draws) to end the league stage with a bang and as a result, squeezed into the top four. While Coyle’s tactical tweaks to finetune a misfiring side played a big role behind the miraculous turnaround, his biggest achievement, perhaps, has been the sense of belief he instilled in his players. Under the Scot, the likes of Nerijus Valskis, Andre Schembri, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Rafael Crivellaro, Anirudh Thapa, Lucian Goian, Eli Sabia and others have looked like players reborn. The aura of confidence has also transcended on the field, with Chennaiyin playing an entertaining brand of attacking football, often blowing away oppositions with their intensity and unwillingness to concede an inch on the field – two traits the team seems to have inherited from their head coach’s no-compromise personality. Under Coyle, the Marina Machans have scored 34 goals and conceded 21 in 14 matches, including the two-legged semi-finals.

Coming to the semis, Coyle was perhaps set for his toughest challenge against FC Goa – the Hero ISL 2019-20 table toppers. In the first leg, however, the Marina Machans shocked one and all, promptly dispatching the Gaurs 4-1 at home. The second leg in Goa was a much tougher affair but the team dug deep and progressed with a 6-5 aggregate win even after a 4-2 loss. Having already pulled off a miraculous turnaround, Coyle will be eager to wrap things up with a fairy-tale ending for the ages.

The team

Under Coyle’s stewardship, Chennaiyin have largely operated with the classic 4-3-3 formation, with top scorer Nerijus Valskis constituting the tip of their attack centrally, flanked by Lallianzuala Chhangte on the left and Andre Schembri on the right. With both Chhangte and Schembri equally adept at operating in the inside channels and drifting out wide, Chennaiyin's front three can seamlessly transition between a narrow trident as well as a more spread out offensive unit, keeping opposition defences guessing. Behind them, Rafael Crivellaro has taken up the traditional no. 10 position, finding pockets of space between the opposition defence and midfield and acting as the team's creator-in-chief.

Anirudh Thapa has been tasked with a more box-to-box role, and the India international has stamped his authority on both ends of the pitch, taking over as a deep-lying playmaker whenever Crivellaro joins the front three to make it a four-pronged attack up front. Edwin Vanspaul, meanwhile, has flourished in the more traditional midfield enforcer's role since being shifted to the position by Coyle from his right back spot, where he operated earlier in the season.

As for the back four, Lucian Goian and Eli Sabia have struck up a formidable centre back pairing. Complimenting their power and physicality to the tee have been fullbacks Jerry Lalrianzuala and Laldinliana Renthlei with their pace and guile. Goalkeeper Vishal Kaith, meanwhile, has been a calming influence between the sticks for the Marina Machans. With an even spread of power, physicality and clever technicians in every area of the pitch, Chennaiyin have been one of the most well-rounded outfits in the competition, capable of blitzkrieging opponents out of games with phases of utter dominance immediately followed by shrewd tactical game management.

Key stats from Chennaiyin’s season

  • Before their second leg semi-final loss to Goa, Chennaiyin had an unbeaten streak of 9 matches (longest by any team this season) which enabled them to get into the final.
  • Chennaiyin scored 20 points in the last 8 matches of the league stage, most by a team in this phase.
  • Chennaiyin scored 27 goals since 9th January, 2020 - the most by a club during the phase.
  • The period from 35 to 60 minutes of matches has been very productive for Chennaiyin, having scored 17 goals in this period (most by a team this season in this period).
  • Chennaiyin have the best shot accuracy (43.08%) in the league.

Players to watch out for:

Nerijus Valskis

The Lithuanian has been sensational this campaign, raking up 14 goals and six assists in 19 matches so far. Valskis is the centre piece of Chennaiyin’s attacking quartet and is a classic no. 9, adept at holding up play and finishing with ruthless precision. His aerial prowess also adds an extra dimension to Chennaiyin’s already formidable arsenal. Currently hunting down ATK’s Roy Krishna for the coveted Golden Boot, the 32-year-old will also have the added motivation to score on Saturday’s final, making him all the more dangerous.

Lallianzuala Chhangte

The Indian winger is enjoying his most productive Hero ISL campaign yet, having scored seven goals already. The 22-year-old’s pace has ben a major ingredient in Coyle’s deadly attack-minded style of play. Come Saturday, Coyle will surely use Chhangte’s threat to keep ATK’s Prabir Das on the backfoot. Prabir, operating in the right wingback position for ATK this season, has been one of the biggest outlets for Habas’ men but Chhangte’s pace will mean the full back will have to be a lot more careful with his forward runs because one misstep could see the Chennaiyin winger descend on the ATK goal unchecked with lightning speed.

Rafael Crivellaro

The playmaker’s ability to find pockets of space between the opposition lines and finding his teammates with inch-perfect passes has set the Hero ISL alight this season. The midfielder already has eight assists to his name this season. Besides his ability to create and dribble past players with uncanny ease, Crivellaro also presents a very potent goal threat, having already scored seven this term.

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