Time running out for Chennaiyin FC's playoff challenge as they face Kerala Blasters FC
Chennaiyin FC will be wary that their next fixture against regional rivals Kerala Blasters FC at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Tuesday could be their last chance at staying in the playoff race in this season of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL).
The visitors are currently on a run where they have lost just two of their last seven games, but have managed no wins in that period. This includes a 2-2 draw against Odisha FC last week, which kept them in eighth place on the table five points behind Odisha FC in seventh and, as of Sunday, seven points behind sixth-placed Bengaluru FC against whom they have a game in hand.
Head coach Thomas Brdaric will be aware that anything less than a win against the Blasters will mean that his team will have to rely on the other contenders slipping up in the final three games. But with the return of talisman Abdenasser El Khayati into the starting XI, who scored against Odisha FC before being taken off, he will be hoping they can go a step further and keep the flame burning till the end.
"Of course we are motivated all the time, because we are a team trying to learn in this season to get a strong future," Bradaric said. "We need competitions like the game tomorrow for experience. We had some bad luck in the last few matches but tomorrow is another chance. It's another opponent, and they've almost qualified for the playoffs [while] it is still our target. In these four games we'll try our best to reach sixth place," he added.
On the other hand, Kerala Blasters FC will be desperate to bring more stability to their season as the league stage enters its final phase. The Blasters currently sit in third place thanks to a sensational run that saw them drop only two points through November and December.
However, form has deserted them after that run of fixtures. In their last four games, the Blasters have managed one single win and lost thrice, most recently against East Bengal FC last week. While they still have a slender advantage in the table for the automatic qualification spots, a win for FC Goa on Monday could mean they don't start their Chennaiyin FC fixture in third place. One of their big concerns will be that they've managed only three goals during this phase, all of them coming via Dimitrios Diamantakos.
"It was a disappointing performance in the way that there was a big chance that we could make the situation easier, and we failed to do so," head coach Ivan Vukomanovic said about last week's result. "We were talking in the dressing room over the last few days that if you're in that position you must show more discipline and motivation than your opponent [...] You have to show that if you want to be top," he added.
These two teams have met on 19 occasions in the Hero ISL, with eight games being drawn. With six wins, Chennaiyin FC are marginally ahead in the overall head-to-head, but haven't managed a win against the Blasters since their double in the 2019 season.