There will be plenty at stake for John Gregory’s men when Chennaiyin FC welcome NorthEast United for an Indian Super League (ISL) clash on Thursday.
The defending champions have opened their title-defence with two losses on the bounce but a lack of effort is not something Gregory can fault his players for.
“We’ve lost two games. It’s not a good start for us. We had the same start in 2015 when we won. We had unbelievable amount of effort from my players on these two games. You can’t fault them for that. We’ve looked at all the stats and in both games, the effort was outstanding,” the Englishman said about his side’s start to the season.
“We just lacked a bit of quality in the attacking third. And we made a couple of mistakes at the back which we are not known for,” he continued.
The champions have suffered losses against Bengaluru FC and FC Goa in their two games so far and Gregory believes the clash against NorthEast United will be a ‘must win’ for his men.
“We were defensively very good against Bengaluru but in the last game, we were punished. We’ve played the best ISL teams in the first two games. It has not been an easy start. But we need to win the match tomorrow night,” he stated.
Despite their desperate need of points of points on the board, Gregory is not pushing the panic button just yet.
“We are not desperate. We are only three points behind where we were last season. We just need to relax and keep calm. We had many obstacles last season. We ignored and them and focused. The results came. There won’t be any knee-jerk reactions from me. We just need to slowly find a way to get a result. I just want my players to relax and play football,” the Chennaiyin coach explained.
“We don’t talk about last year much. It is not something that is omnipresent. It happened six months ago. We don’t focus on it. We just get on with it. The club itself had a lot of problems in 2015 when they faced obstacles and had to go to Pune after floods.
“We just need to calm down and focus on how to put things right. All we need to do is go out and keep doing what we have to do.”
Jeje Lalpekhlua has endured a scratchy start to his campaign and failed to bag a single goal but Gregory is confident that the forward will come good sooner rather than later.
“Jeje is due a goal now. He had a tough patch towards the end of last season and then scored two goals in the play-offs. He has that capability. He just needs to stay relaxed and be focused. Once they get the first goal, everything else follows up,” said Gregory.
Sharing his thoughts on the opponents, Gregory said, “NorthEast have had a fantastic start but they have never finished in the play-off spot. But we have to respect them. They beat ATK and almost beat Goa.”
“They should have won the game. But I have to show belief in my players. They have the capability to win it for us tomorrow.”
Gregory also praised the work ethic of Palestinian forward Carlos Salom whom he believes offers something similar to former Chennaiyin player Stiven Mendoza.
“Salom has a lot of pace. He can go beyond their back-four. He works the channels and loves scoring goals. He can use both feet and protect the ball. He also has huge enthusiasm. He doesn’t play on his own down the middle. He is just something different. Something we have never had after Mendoza. They have similarities and pace is one of his major assets,” the Chennaiyin FC coach said.
Gregory believes it is too early to pick a favourite for the title but is backing Bengaluru, Goa and ATK to fight it out at the top as the league progresses.
“At the start of the season, everybody (title favourites). There is a team called Alaves. They have the same points as Barcelona and they might finish half-way up. There are teams who start off well with the best intentions. Teams get a good start, get a good result. But after 6-7 games, the league finds a normal,” he explained.
“I think after that period, you might see Bengaluru, Goa, ATK come up the table. They have done really well. Coppell is a really good coach and they will challenge for the play-off spot,” Gregory added.