Easily the best team during the league stages of last year’s tournament, Chennaiyin FC will start as one of the strong favourites when the second edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) kicks off on October 3.The franchise — co-owned by national cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachhan — was at the top of the standings at the end of the league phase. But a 3-4 aggregate loss to Kerala Blasters in the two-legged semi-finals put paid to their aspirations of winning the inaugural edition.
They were let down by a nightmarish first leg in Kochi where they went down 0-3. Not even a commanding 3-1 victory in the second leg was enough to undo the damage. The absence of Brazilian playmaker Elanao Blumer with a hamstring injury also hampered the team in the later stages.
Coached by Italian World Cup winner Marco Materazzi, the team will hope for better luck this time round. The former Inter Milan defender has decided to retain the core of last year’s squad with a few additions.
Fikru had played an important role in Kolkata’s success, specially in the early stages of the opening season. The Ethiopean’s finishing skills could be a handful for most teams in the ISL.
Elano was the highest scorer last year and with the prolific Fikru upfront, Chennaiyin fans will expect the goals to flow. Fikru will be partnered by either the promising Jeje Lalpekhlua or Balwant Singh.
Both Jeje and Balwant were a part of Mohun Bagan’s run to the I-League title in the 2014-15 season. Jeje is currently one of the most promising young talents in Indian football. The 24-year-old was the highest scoring Indian player in last year’s ISL with four goals.
Balwant on the other hand, only had a lone goal in his kitty last year. But the former JCT striker had played better than the stats suggest. Sometimes playing as the lone striker, he had troubled rival defences with his speed and movement. But for some poor finishing, his tally could have been much higher.
The 28-year-old is in good form at present, having netted six times during Mohun Bagan’s I-League campaign and will hope to carry the scoring touch into the ISL.
With Blumer pulling the strings in the midfield, and Mendoza and Bruno Pelissari on the wings, the strikers are expected to get enough ammunition to trouble rival defences.
The arrival of former Italian international Manuele Blasi will also add some solidity to the midfield. The 35-year-old central midfielder has turned out for prominent Serie A clubs like AS Roma, Juventus and Fiorentina.
The defence will miss some of the key players from last year with the departure of central defenders Gouramangi Singh and Mikaël Silvestre. Materazzi has also indicated that he may not take the field this season and instead focus solely on his coaching role.
But Bernard Mendi, Dhanachandra Singh and the experienced Mehrajuddin Wadoo have the ability to plug the gaps. Materazzi may also consider employing Harmanjot Singh Khabra in a defensive role.
Goalkeeper Apoula Edel Bete is another new arrival. The Armenia international of Cameroonian origin did well for Kolkata in last year’s final and could be impressive when he is in form.
The club had a month long pre-season camp in Perugia, Italy. They performed well in their four practice matches against local sides. They defeated Ortana 2-0, thrashed ASD San Donato Tavarnelle 5-1 and lost 2-1 to Gualdo Casacastalda and 2-0 against Unione Sportiva Arezzo.
Chennaiyin’s build-up to the ISL has been better than last year and Materazzi was happy with the preparations.
“We had extensive training sessions in Italy this time. We focused on specific areas and importantly we worked towards avoiding injuries. We will try to avoid injuries as compared to last year. We cannot guarantee 100 percent against getting injured. We will do our best this year,” Materazzi said upon the team’s return to India.
Chennaiyin face a tough battle in their first match as they will meet defending champions Atletico de Kolkata in the tournament opener at their home ground the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
Goalkeepers: Apoula Edel Bete, Karanjit Singh, Nidhin Lal
Defenders: Eder Monteiro, Mailson Alves, Bernard Mendy, Alessandro Potenza, Dhanachandra Singh, Abhishek Das, Lalhmaihsanga Ralte, Justin Stephen, Mehrajuddin Wadoo
Midfielders: Elano Blumer, Manuele Blasi, Raphael Augusto, Bruno Pelissari, Thoi Singh, Harmanjot Khabra, Dhanpal Ganesh, Godwin Franco, Zakeer Mundampara
Forwards: John Stiven Mendoza, Fikru Teferra, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Jayesh Rane, Balwant Singh