With the race for the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) playoffs heating up, the opening fixture of Matchweek 18 will witness a clash of two struggling sides, with Chennaiyin FC and Odisha FC squaring off at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, in Chennai, on Thursday. 

With not many games to go before the end of the league stage, there’s no room for Hero ISL teams to slip up at this juncture. Particularly Chennaiyin FC and Odisha FC - two teams that find themselves out of the top six spots. There’s a five-point gap separating eighth-placed Chennaiyin FC from Odisha FC, who are placed just above them. 

However, despite their contrasting playing styles, both teams have quite a few things in common. So far, they both have a similar negative goal difference (-4). They have kept just two clean sheets all season while their leading goalscorers, Petar Sliskovic (Chennaiyin FC) and Diego Mauricio (Odisha FC), have scored the same amount of goals (8).

Both sides have struggled to pick up wins on the road, which has affected their consistency. Odisha FC have registered just two wins on the road, while Chennaiyin FC have three. And in their previous seven games, the two teams have just a solitary win.

“These two sides are not getting the reward for their performance, particularly Chennayin FC. They are six games without a win, but they have drawn four of those. They lost to Mumbai City FC but were given a lot of praise by Des Buckingham for how difficult Thomas Brdaric’s side made it for them. I think in the last game against Bengaluru FC, it was individual errors that cost them (Chennaiyin FC). They were 0-3 down at half-time and it was infuriating for Brdaric. I know he was a lot more pleased with the performance in the second half, but individual errors can cost you in this league, and that proved to be the case for Chennaiyin FC the last time out,” says Hero ISL commentator Mark Tompkins.   

Two sides of the same coin 

However, on the field, there has been a stark difference regarding how Odisha FC head coach Josep Gombau and Chennaiyin FC head coach Thomas Brdaric set up their teams. Under Gombau, Odisha FC have exhibited a more composed, possession-based brand of football. 

Meanwhile, Brdaric, who likes to take risks, has added an element of unpredictability to his side. The Marina Machans may have lost more games than Odisha FC, but they have netted more goals than the Kalinga Warriors.   

Chennaiyin FC, more often than not this season, have displayed the ability to hurt teams on the counter-attack, scoring 9 of their 25 goals this way, with only Mumbai City FC and Odisha FC scoring more counter-attacking goals.        

“Odisha FC have a little confidence just because they are not picking up results. But the way that they play is predictable. If I were a coach or a player, I’d want to play against a team like Odisha FC, because you know how they will play and they haven’t tried to add a plan B. Teams like Mumbai City FC, and Hyderabad FC have added that Plan B this season, and it has helped them get out of tough situations and get results towards the end,” says Hero ISL expert Erik Paartalu.

"Chennaiyin FC, on the other hand, are very unpredictable, and that’s what makes them very difficult to play against. They've had some great performances away from home but have struggled at home. For them to be in the top six, I wouldn’t say luck, but (it would need) something on that side because they don’t put the same performance together every other week. When you have that inconsistency, you’re going to have inconsistent results,” he explains.

Odisha FC’s demoralising away record

Six of their seven defeats this season have come away, highlighting Odisha FC’s struggles on the road. Since their thrilling 3-2 comeback win against Jamshedpur FC in the opening fixture, Gombau’s side have lost all of their away matches. 

The statistics at both ends of the pitch haven’t been encouraging either. Odisha FC have shipped more goals away than at home -  (16) across seven games and have netted just eight goals in these games. They are yet to pick a clean sheet away from home. The Juggernauts face the pressure to turn around that record as they make a trip to Chennai.   

“Odisha FC’s home form has been superb, with five wins in seven at the Kalinga Stadium. If you’re Josep Gombau, you’re scratching your head, wondering why we are like two teams (at home and away). Whether their style is different away from home is not that noticeable, but three of their last four games are at home, and that could be a key factor to Odisha FC making it to the top six,” Tompkins notes.  

“Going to the Marina Arena will be a big test for Odisha FC. If they lose that one again, it will be another defeat on the road, and it gives Chennaiyin FC that impetus to go forward and try and get into the top six, going into the last few games of the season,” he states.  

Can a victory turn the tide? 

With both sides desperate to shake off their rough patch, a victory could hopefully put their campaign back on track. Odisha FC are tied on points with sixth-placed Bengaluru FC, with a game in hand. A win would see them leapfrog the Blues into the sixth spot.   

For Chennaiyin FC, three points against Odisha FC won’t change their position on the table but will help them close the gap on sixth place by three points. 

“Chennaiyin FC aren’t scoring many goals lately, but they have become hard to beat. Just a couple of seasons ago under Czaba Laszlo, they won three games that season but drew 11, and they were hard to beat,” says Tompkins.

“When you look at Odisha FC, they have equalled their record of most wins in a single Hero ISL season from 2019-20. If they win one more game, they will have their most wins in a single Hero ISL season. And while they are on a poor run of form at the moment, one win for either of these sides could be the kick and confidence booster they need for that final push to get into the top six,” he concludes.