Shades of Materazzi's 2015 title-winning campaign in Coyle's ruthless Chennaiyin
Chennaiyin FC took a big step towards the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2019-20 final on Saturday with a 4-1 win over FC Goa in the first leg of their semi-final clash. There's still a lot of work left to be done if Chennaiyin are to win the title, but given the Marina Machans' current form, only a brave soul would bet against them. If Chennaiyin manage to achieve the feat, it would mark the perfect ending to a miraculous turnaround under head coach Owen Coyle. To illustrate, when the Irishman took over on December 6, 2019, Chennaiyin were struggling in ninth position with just five points from six matches but since then, have finished fourth in the table and are now in a favourable position to reach the final in Goa.
It's been an inspiring turnaround already and if Chennaiyin go on to lift the title, it'll be a comeback story for the ages. But an unprecedented one, however, it will be not. In fact, it was the Marina Machans themselves who were the protagonists of a similar turnaound back in 2015 - a season which saw them clinch their first Hero ISL title.
When stripped to the basics, Chennaiyin's miraculous turnaround this season under Coyle bears some striking parallels with the way Marco Materazzi's Marina Machans bounced back and made a beeline for the title back in 2015. Like this season, Chennaiyin seemed down and out 10 matches in, as they found themselves rooted to the bottom of the table with just 10 points. A similar surge saw the 2015 squad win their final four matches on the trot to rise up the table and finish in the top four.
Given Materazzi's Chennaiyin didn't need a change of guards at the helm to kickstart the turnaround, like it did this season, but the way both Materazzi and Coyle persevered to inspire a team with drooping shoulders to turn their respective seasons on their heads, practically mirrors each other.
While Coyle has done his bit off the field, on it, Chennaiyin's rise this season has, in large parts, been orchestrated by striker Nerijus Valskis and playmaker Rafael Crivellaro. Till now, the duo has registered a total of 20 goals and 13 assists between themselves this season.
The partnership between the two may very well remind Chennaiyin fans of the Stiven Mendoza-Elano Blumer equation, which was the driving force behind Chennaiyin's run in the 2015 season. Mendoza and Elano contributed to Chennaiyin’s cause with a total of 17 goals and 7 assists between themselves in the title-winning campaign.
Coming to the semi-final stage, Chennaiyin registered a 3-0 victory over ATK in the first leg at home. This season, too, the Marina Machans will be taking a 3-goal cushion into the second leg in Goa courtesy their 4-1 win at home. In 2015, Chennaiyin went on to lose the away leg 2-1 in Kolkata but progressed to the final by the virtue of their aggregate superiority. In the historic final played at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Goa, which incidentally is the venue for the final this season as well, Chennaiyin edged out the Gaurs 3-2 in a thrilling finale to lift their maiden Hero ISL title. The final few chapters for this season are yet to unfold for Coyle’s Chennaiyin but it will be interesting to see how it plays out eventually.
The fact that FC Goa topped the league table in both seasons and Chennaiyin FC knocked Mumbai City FC out of the top four race in their penultimate match of the league phase, only adds to the intrigue levels associated with the narrative.