By Ashwin Muralidharan (@AshwinMNair10)
After the opening match defeat against FC Goa last Sunday which featured a chastening first half where Chennaiyin FC shipped three goals, manager John Gregory was the first one to take responsibility, admitting that he got his team selection and formations wrong.
Four days later, walking into the post-match interaction with the media after a thumping 3-0 win over NorthEast United FC, Gregory was all smiles as he quipped, “I hope you are all happier tonight.”
The Englishman had every right to be happy after effecting a marked turnaround, seemingly like flicking a switch on!
Chennaiyin had struggled with a 3-5-2 in the first match against FC Goa, with the midfield three of Inigo Calderon, Raphael Augusto and Rene Mihelic lacking solidity and balance.
On Thursday night, Chennaiyin's romp over The Highlanders was built on the balance of their midfield. A 4-man defence was back in vogue in 'Madras' and a midfield three was deployed with Dhanpal Ganesh, Bikramjit Singh and Raphael Augusto.
That midfield trio would take the game by the scruff of its neck from the word go as NorthEast United, so impressive in attack against Jamshedpur FC in the opening game despite not scoring, looked clueless.
Raphael Augusto was at his marauding best, showing off some neat touches and driving attacks forward with gusto. The strapping midfielder was hard to muscle off the ball, as Adilson Goiano found out quickly on Thursday, and was orchestrating the game beautifully.
But helping him do so was the reassuring presence of Bikramjit Singh and Dhanpal Ganesh behind him. Bikramjit was all energy in midfield, flying into tackles and offering an alternate option in attack with late runs, while Dhanpal Ganesh sat back and mopped up play. Ganesh also had the task of handling NorthEast's creative spark in midfield – Marciano! The Tamil Nadu medio would keep him on a tight leash throughout the game, which was crucial in deciding the outcome of the game.
Obviously, the coach had clearly defined the roles for his midfielders and that played a huge part in giving Raphael Augusto the space and freedom he craves. The result was a two-goal lead in the first half for the home side.
For the first goal, he picked up possession in midfield and muscled off Adilson before cutting in from the left and finding an inviting amount of real estate to unleash a shot. Fortunately, there was a deflection off Abdul Hakku but like it is said – 'One doesn't catch a fish if one doesn't at least throw a net.'
For the second goal, nobody picked up Augusto's late run into the box as he swept a loose ball in the box home.
Also highly impressive were Dutch winger Gregory Nelson, who was instrumental in the first half down the left wing, and Jeje Lalpekhlua who led the lines with aplomb.
While NorthEast's defending left a lot to be desired, their poor handling of Raphael Augusto contributed to it. Abdul Hakku, so impressive in NorthEast's 0-0 draw against Jamshedpur, had a shocker on the night. Apart from the own goal, the youngster committed several mistakes and conceded silly free-kicks in dangerous areas. But this should serve as a learning experience for the promising defender who kept persevering till the very end.
In the first round of games in the ISL this season, we have seen teams race to three-goal leads and then slack off and concede a couple. Chennaiyin FC themselves staged a revival on Sunday against FC Goa, losing 2-3.
Not wanting to offer their opponents any chance into the match, Gregory ensured his players were focused throughout the game during his half-time team talk. The result was an all-important cleansheet for Chennaiyin FC.
He revealed after the game that at half-time he impressed on his charges the importance of not conceding. It is here that the performance of Henrique Sereno must be highlighted. The skipper led by example, making crunching but fair tackles while also showing his silkier skills with accurate distribution from the back.
Another noticeable facet of the game was how Chennaiyin FC did not allow NorthEast United to dominate them physically. Despite the visitors possessing some highly physical players, they could not take advantage of it with Chennaiyin rarely giving them opportunities to send in corners and free-kicks into the box.
It was a conscious ploy by the team, as revealed by defender Inigo Calderon to reporters after the game.
The Supermachans were not averse to go in hard on NorthEast players as well, with Marcinho, Danilo and Odair Fortes subjected to hard but fair tackles on multiple occasions.
Highlanders' coach Joao de Deus will be hoping for Rowllin Borges' recovery after the debacle in Chennai, with the balance Indian midfielder brings to the midfield sorely missed.
John Gregory, on the other hand, will be going into a 10-day break with the satisfaction of having masterminded a quick turnaround after a disastrous start to the season.