Chennaiyin set for do-or-die AFC Cup clash against Manang
With their AFC Cup hopes balanced on a knife's edge, Chennaiyin FC face off against Manang Marshyangdi at the ANFA complex in Nepal in their final AFC Cup Group E match on Wednesday. The tie is a do-or-die fixture for John Gregory's men and only a win in the match can keep Chennaiyin in the race to qualify for the knockout phases.
As Group E stands currently, Bangladesh's Abahani Dhaka top the group with 10 points from 5 matches, followed by Chennaiyin with 8 points from the same number of outings. With only the top placed team progressing to the inter-zone playoff semi-finals, Chennaiyin must win against Manang and hope Minerva Punjab FC can beat or hold Abahani in the other match to be played on the same day. If Chennaiyin win and Abahani lose, Chennaiyin will top the group with 11 points, while Abahani will finish on 10, sending the Indian side through.
In the event of a Chennaiyin win and Abahani being held to a draw, both teams will end with 11 points, invoking the head to head record. Both teams have won their respective home fixture against the other (Chennaiyin 1-0 winners at Ahmedabad and Abahani 3-2 winners at Dhaka) and scored 3 goals each. However, the advantage will be with Chennaiyin since they have bagged two away goals in head-to-heads against Abahani compared to the Bangladeshi side's zero.
Minerva and Manang, on the other hand, are on 5 and 2 points respectively and are out of the reckoning for the knockout phase already.
With goals being the need of the hour, expect Gregory to field an attacking line-up. The Englishman may just opt to start with both CK Vineeth and Mohammed Rafi up top, especially after the latter's performance against Minerva in the last match. Rafi came on as a second-half substitute and scored a late goal to salvage a point against Minerva. Defender Eli Sabia, who missed the last match due to a suspension, is expected to come back straight into the starting XI.
A day before the crunch tie, Chennaiyin head coach John Gregory attended the pre-match presser. Stressing the importance of the match to keep their Asian dream alive, Gregory said, "Needless to say, it's a very important match for us. We simply have to win. Nothing less will do. The focus is on getting three points and nothing else. And we obviously have to hope that the other result goes our way, in the game between Abahani Dhaka and Minerva Punjab."
Asked about how the team is equipped to handle the immense pressure surrounding the fixture, the Englishman replied, "There’s always been pressure on us, in the Hero ISL and the AFC Cup. Certainly, it's the same case in Wednesday's game. Manang lost 5-0 in the last game and will have a point to prove. We know we face a tough game. We’re quite used to the pressure. A lot at stake for us. Qualification to the knockout stage up for grabs."
An away tie against Manang may prove tricky for the Indian side, considering the ANFA Complex sports an artificial turf - something the Chennaiyin team is not very used to. Gregory admitted the challenge at hand and said, "We haven’t played a match as such on an artificial pitch yet. We did train at the Bangalore Football Stadium during the Hero ISL season. But this will be a new experience for our players. It’s good that we get to practice at the match venue on Tuesday. From personal experience too, it is difficult and a challenge to play on such an artificial turf. You get a different kind of bounce on it. It will take a little bit of getting used to. It does present a challenge for us. For the home team, I’m sure they will be used to it. Let’s hope we deal with it well."
Can Chennaiyin overcome the odds and qualify for the next round?
Leave your predictions in the comments below.