When FC Goa hosts Chennaiyin FC in the first-leg of their Indian Super League (ISL) play-off on Saturday, it will once again be a clash of two contrasting philosophies. The two sides were separated by just two points at the end of the league stages but there lies a world of difference in their respective coach’s approach to the game.
On one hand lies Sergio Lobera’s Goa who have given a new meaning to ‘attack is the best form of defence’. At the other end we have John Gregory’s Chennaiyin, who in the words of their own coach, have built the team from the back.
Goa were the last team to book their spot in the ISL play-offs but when it comes to the attack, they are by far the most productive one with 42 goals in the league stage. It is their porous defence, if anything, which has been their bane in the league. They have shipped in 28 goals at the back, the worst of the four teams in the play-offs.
Not that Lobera is complaining. Brought up through the Barcelona school of thought, the man who was at one point the assistant manager to the late Tito Vilanova at the Catalan club, Lobera’s approach to football is very clear.
Placing emphasis on the technical abilities of the players, Lobera seeks to play on the front foot by dominating ball possession. He loves his defenders and goalkeeper to play out from the back, a trait which has proved costly at times in the league. Some big howlers from custodian Laxmikant Kattimani spring to mind.
However, that has not deterred the Spaniard from continuing to insist on it as the league has progressed. Whatever be the deficiencies at the back, a highly clinical, albeit lop-sided attack, more than makes up for it.
30 of the 42 goals the Goans have scored in the season have come from two men – the league’s top scorer in Spain’s Ferran Corominas (18) and his compatriot Manuel Lanzarote (12). But take nothing away from the rest of the attack with the Gaurs producing some breathtaking football many a times.
The likes of Mandar Rao Desai and Brandon Fernandes have looked the part on the wings while Ahmed Jahouh has been a steadying influence in midfield. The Spanish flavour in the side has been significant with as many as six players from Lobera’s native land forming the squad at the start.
That number has been now reduced to four after the departures of Adrian Colunga and Manuel Arana but the nature of football remains the same.
Their first clean-sheet of the season arrived only in their 16th match in a 4-0 win against FC Pune City. Not that clean sheets mean a big deal to Lobera for whom they remain just an ‘anecdote’.
He has gambled on the ‘outscoring the opponents’ mantra to make up for their failings at the back and on the balance of things, it does appear to have paid off with qualification to the play-offs where it is anyone’s game.
Clean sheets though, do mean a big deal for Gregory and his men who have collected seven of them enroute to the play-offs. The former England midfielder and Aston Villa manager’s approach to the game is more pragmatic one.
Ahead of the game, he made it clear that he has built this Chennaiyin side from the back. Right-back Inigo Calderon and the centre-back pairing of Henrique Sereno and Mailson Alves have been a constant at the back for the Marina Machans.
It is perhaps why they hold the mantle of the second best defence of the top-four sides having conceded only 19 goals. They are at the opposite end of the spectrum to Goa when it comes to numbers in attack and defence. Gregory’s attack has scored the fewest goals (24) amongst the play-off contestants but the very fact that they finished second only to Bengaluru in the league stage is testament to their pragmatism paying dividends.
Just like Goa have been able to depend on their relentless attack to bail them out, Chennaiyin have been able to make the most of what a secure and consistent back-four brings. They haven’t had the need to score four or five goals in a game to win the match. Running a tight ship at the back has allowed them to edge past opponents with a solitary goal or two for a large part of their campaign.
It has seen them pick up victories on the road against the three other sides in play-offs. If that is not an indictment of their approach working in the toughest of circumstances, then nothing is.
It is an approach that was adopted by another Englishman in the league in the form of Steve Coppell at Jamshedpur. It came very near to paying off for the new entrants to the league, with only a defeat in their final match crushing their hopes.
Chennaiyin’s attack is not lop-sided like that of the Goans with goals coming from all parts of the pitch. Their three trusted overseas lieutenants at the back themselves have accounted for six of the 24 goals the side has scored. Jeje Lalpekhua remains their focal point in attack with seven goals in the campaign so far but he has been supported by a couple of goals each from Raphael Augusto and Rene Mihelic in midfield.
So far, there has been nothing to choose between the two sides who have won nine matches each in the league stages. Both have adopted contrasting approaches and philosophies to arrive at the same conclusion – qualification to the play-offs.
Will Lobera’s Goa outscore Chennaiyin or will Gregory’s pragmatism win the day? We shall await the result this weekend at the Fatorda with abated breath.