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'Captivating' Anirudh Thapa steals the show against shabby FC Goa

03:42 GMT 01/03/2020
Chennaiyin vs FC Goa
The youngster picked up a goal and an assist in Chennaiyin's 4-1 win over Goa...

In-form Chennaiyin FC were handed their most challenging assignment in the Owen Coyle era when they hosted FC Goa in the first leg of the Indian Super League (ISL) playoffs.

There was very little separating the two sides in terms of the form in which they arrived at the game. The hosts were on a nine-game unbeaten run, whereas the Gaurs had scored at least four goals in each of their last four games.

But the exclusion of injured Hugo Boumous and Brandon Fernandes shifted the first leg in Chennaiyin’s favour. With two of their best players of the season out of action, Goa were bound to suffer and Coyle knew that he had to make the most of it.

Boumous and Brandon have been the creative outlet for Goa this season. The pair combined to provide 16 assists this season and have been crucial in the smooth transition from defence to attack. Their absence meant that Ferran Corominas had to drop deep to create, and Ahmed Jahouh was burdened with additional responsibilities at the centre of the pitch.

With Jackichand Singh, Seiminlen Doungel and Lenny Rodrigues failing to contribute much, the Marina Machans were handed a clear superiority in the midfield battle. This was exactly where Coyle looked to exploit, something he achieved thanks to a brilliant performance from Anirudh Thapa.

In the first half, the Irishman preferred to test the water before sending in the cavalry. He realised that dominating the midfield, pushing men forward and scoring a couple of goals was very much on the cards, given the lack of depth in Goa’s midfield.

Hence, he went all guns blazing in the second 45, pushing the defensive line higher. 

Despite the prolificacy in front of goal in the second half hogging the limelight, it was the midfield where the game was won for Chennaiyin. Jahouh did a good job at limiting Rafael Crivellaro’s influence on the game from open play. But Thapa reacted well to drive the game forward, scoring a goal and creating another.

The 22-year-old found the back of the net from about 25 yards out with a spectacular hit in the 61st minute. He received the ball from Jerry Lalrinzuala, picked his target and shot it right into the top corner. Later, he started the move and bagged the assist for Chennaiyin’s fourth, which was scored by Lallianzuala Chhangte.

Thapa admitted that Coyle’s green signal to push forward in the second half changed the game.

"We had a plan. He (Coyle) said that we were doing well defensively, but we needed to stick to our plan, push forward and be patient. In the first half, we had some missed passes. We kept our patience and luckily scored more goals.

“In the first half, we were not keeping our shape. We did not keep our calm. We just needed to score one goal and would then score more. In the second half, we kept our composure, pushed forward, were slow but got the goals in time,” he said after the game.

Chennaiyin waited for about an hour to take it up a notch in midfield and then beat Goa at their own game – midfield dominance, smooth transition and clinical finishing. Their patience – as Thapa put it – bore fruit as they finished the game with a deserved three-goal lead.

This defeat also exposed Goa’s poor defence, which has usually been smoke-screened by their dangerous attack. Former boss Sergio Lobera operated on the “score more than you concede” philosophy and was never worried about lack of clean-sheets.

With two key attacking midfielders injured, the attack lacked the tooth to make a mark. The spotlight was hence on the poor defence, which had yet another forgettable day. The goals arrived because of lapses in concentration and lack of communication within the back-line.

Mourtada Fall and Seriton Fernandes all had games to forget.

Goa have now conceded seven goals to Chennaiyin in the last two fixtures. Knowing that a clean-sheet is a necessity in the return leg, the table-toppers will want to address the defensive concern as a top priority.