Chennaiyin’s surge in form a glowing testimony of Ganesh’s value

Chennaiyin FC, in the last couple of months, have been on a roll. In the Hero Super Cup 2019, John Gregory's men put together a brilliant run to reach the final, only to narrowly lose out on the title to FC Goa. On the AFC Cup front, Chennaiyin have been ruthless to say the least, staying undefeated in their five fixtures, including the qualifiers. With three matches in the group stages over, Chennaiyin currently top Group E with 7 points and are favourites to seal progression to the next round.

However, if anyone asked a Chennaiyin fan if this was possible, even probable, back in March, the answer would have been a resounding no. After all, this was the same Chennaiyin team which finished rock bottom in the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2018-19 with just 9 points from 18 matches and both the worst defensive and offensive record in tow.

So, how did the miraculous transformation come about? Well, the answer is anyone's guess, but perhaps the most popular and obvious one at hand is 'Dhanpal Ganesh'.

To recall, Ganesh was a rock for the Marina Machans in their title-winning season back in Hero ISL 2017-18. Operating as a midfield pivot, the local boy from Chennaiyin pulled off his midfield destroyer's role to perfection, providing the defence with ample cover. Ganesh's dynamic presence in front of the back four gave the more creative midfielders like Raphael Augusto and Anirudh Thapa the freedom to play their natural game in the opposition third, maximizing Chennaiyin's attacking threat in the process. In the 17 matches he appeared in during the 2017-18 campaign, Ganesh scored two goals, put in 44 tackles, made 22 interceptions and as many clearances.

The 24-year-old’s contributions, however, went well beyond these enviable stats. Ganesh is a leader on the pitch and his never-say-die attitude turned invaluable to John Gregory during the more difficult junctures of the season. With a lot more expected of him in the 2018-19 season, Ganesh injured his right knee, which eventually ruled him out for the entirety of the Hero ISL 2018-19 campaign.

The consequence of that setback turned out to be quite extraordinary for Chennaiyin. Despite retaining the majority of the 2017-18 title-winning team, Chennaiyin's failure to rope in a like-for-like replacement for Ganesh cost the team dearly. Sans the steel and solidity Ganesh so effortlessly provided, Chennaiyin's midfield crumbled spectacularly and had a domino effect on both defence and attack. Augusto and Thapa were both asked to curb their attacking instincts to fulfil a more defensive role they just weren’t comfortable with.

Chennaiyin went from being the best defence in the Hero ISL 2017-18 campaign to the worst in the next. There was also a marked drop at the other end with Jeje Lalpekhlua becoming more and more isolated up front, devoid of any real service. Consequently, Chennaiyin's title defence too went up in smoke.

One might argue that, in modern football, the difference of just one man - especially a defensive midfielder - in a system is simply not enough to justify such a major dip in fortunes. In most scenarios, the argument would hold true but for the case in question, the evidence is hard to ignore.

The midfield enforcer's returned from injury coincided with Chennaiyin's miraculous upturn in form. Ganesh was heavily involved in Chennaiyin's Hero Super Cup campaign, in which the two-time champions brushed aside fellow Hero ISL rivals like Mumbai City FC, NorthEast United FC and ATK on their way to the final. Incidentally, Chennaiyin lost all their six matches against the above three opponents during the Hero ISL campaign.

In the AFC Cup group fixtures too, the 24-year-old has been a starter in the majority of the matches and played a big role in maintaining the team's unbeaten run in the continental tournament. Ganesh is far from his usual best, still finding his feet after recovering from a career-threatening injury, but his impact on the team has been as immediate as they come. Ganesh, in essence, is a lot more than just Chennaiyin's home-town hero. He is an embodiment of Chennaiyin's heart and passion which makes the team tick on the field.

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