We know what's at stake: Gregory ahead of AFC Cup tie vs Minerva
After their first defeat of the AFC Cup 2019 campaign against Bangladeshi side Abahani Dhaka in their last outing, Chennaiyin FC will be eager to bounce back when they face off against fellow Indian team Minerva Punjab FC on Wednesday at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati, Assam.
Despite the 3-2 loss to Abahani, John Gregory's men still top Group E with 7 points from 4 matches and have control over their qualification to the next stage of the continental showpiece. At the pre-match press conference, a day prior to the tie, Chennaiyin head coach John Gregory highlighted the same and said, "We certainly know what is at stake. To be honest, we have faced a number of challenges in this competition. We weren’t able to play in our home stadium in Chennai. That was also something we have had to overcome. And it is also a challenge, with the gaps between matches. So, despite everything, given the position we are in, if we win our two remaining group matches, we 100% qualify for the knockout round. What is great is that it is in our hands. We control our destiny. Win two matches and we qualify."
However, Chennaiyin face Nepal's Manang Marshyangdi Club in the final group game on June 26 and with the fixture being on foreign soil, the two-time Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) champions will be eager to bag the maximum points against Minerva to have the advantage going into the tie in Kathmandu. To recall, Chennaiyin and Minerva's first leg tie of the competition at Ahmedabad ended up in a goalless draw.
Gregory opined that the team was focused on the task at hand and preparations have been on track. "The mood is very good in the camp. It has been a bit strange as everyone else is on vacation but we’re back, continuing our training. But we wouldn’t have it any other way, to be honest, being involved in the AFC Cup. We have two important games coming up against Minerva (Punjab) and Manang (Marshyangdi) in Nepal. The professionalism that my boys have portrayed is first class. And they are all aware of the task at hand," said the Englishman.
Midfielder Anirudh Thapa has been a major cog for Chennaiyin in the AFC Cup, providing the side's creative onus going forward. The 22-year-old, however, was recently involved in India's King's Cup tour to Thailand. Asked if exhaustion may be a point of concern for the ace midfielder, Gregory said, "Anirudh has been playing continuously for the last two years with us and the national team, without much of a break with all the travel. It isn’t easy, but this is what we want to do and are paid to do. And if we qualify for the knockout round, it will be a fantastic achievement and moment for everyone at the club."
Another concern facing Chennaiyin will be that the team's last competitive match against Abahani was back on May 15. With over a month's break to contend with, it may be tricky for the team to hit the ground running. Sharing his views on the aspect, Gregory stated, "Honestly, it won’t affect the players too much. The way they have been in practice, the way they have looked after themselves is a testament to that. They’ve worked really hard. Even in their off time, they’re thinking about what will happen to them next season. They’re fully focused on the two games at hand. Qualifying for the next round will be a huge achievement for everyone associated with the club."
Veteran striker CK Vineeth, who accompanied the gaffer to the brief, provided more context and revealed, "You might say we had a break but we actually didn’t. Before we went away, we were given this big book on fitness and conditioning by our team. And we have ensured we stay fit and in shape. We are focused on getting all three points tomorrow and inching closer to the knockout round."
Chennaiyin will, however, be without defensive stalwart Eli Sabia, who is suspended for the match. Chris Herd may be moved back to partner Mailson Alves at the heart of Chennaiyin's defence. Striker Jeje Lalpekhlua is also reportedly nursing an injury and hasn't travelled with the team.