BY ATANU MITRA (@Atanu00 on Twitter)
NorthEast United had always been a bogey team for Chennaiyin FC, even though the two sides have had very different performance graphs in the first two seasons. While the South Indian team was the first side to make it to the knock-out stages in the inaugural edition and emerged champions last year, the Highlanders have never made it to the last four of the competition. Even then, the John Abraham co-owned side had a 3-0 record against the Blues, while the other face-off ended in a draw. So, when the Marco Materazzi coached side made their trip to Guwahati a couple of days ago, they were not only facing the chart-toppers but were also eager to break the voodoo.
There were surprises in the starting XI’s as well as the Italian World Cup winner decided to rest his marquee defender John Arne Riise while Maurizio Peluso made it straight to the line-up after serving a three- match suspension. For the fans more interested in the performance of Indian footballers, there was a mouth-watering content in the midfield as two young Indian midfielders started in the center of park – a rarity in ISL.
Siam Hanghal, who had made it to the first eleven only twice in the last two campaigns, started against his former team as Marco handed him his first start as the defending champions lined up in a 4-3-3. Rowllin Borges, on the other hand, took his usual position in front of the defense in NorthEast United’s 4-1-4-1.
With both the team to cautious not to concede first, the encounter started in pedestrian pace and lacked goal-mouth action. Both the teams chose not to send too many players in the opponent territory and with full-backs not overlapping, the onus was completely on the strikers to pull off a moment of brilliance.
There were a couple of half-chances, created mainly due to the indecision of defenders deep inside the box. Subrata Paul, who became a father earlier this week, failed to convincingly deal with a Peluso free-kick, but was fortunate enough to see Hans Mulder head out the rebound for a goal-kick.
The Chennaiyin defenders were rock-solid at the back, but flirted with danger as the opponents were livid with penalty appeals on a couple of occasions. Bernard Mendy went into the referee’s book after a rash challenge where he went into an aerial duel with his knee hitting Emiliano Alfaro at his back.
While the first half was lackluster and was devoid of any noteworthy move, the early goal in the second half opened the game up. Davide Succi, who had not scored any competitive goal since April last year, finally found his goal-scoring boots, as he utilized his freedom inside the box to unleash a half-volley after Siam Hanghal had sent in a ball from the right. Paul could have done better to deal with it but the effort from the former Palermo striker was enough to earn his side the elusive first goal.
The goal changed the complexion of the contest. NorthEast United had been reliant on defending one-goal leads in the first few matches, but now it was time for Nelo Vingada to come up with a plan B.
While Alfaro and co. kept on knocking on Chennaiyin’s door, they were undone by some valiant defending by the travelling back-four. Bernard Mendy was the star of the show, as he saved the citadel with a few last-ditch tackles with the most important of those being the one on Alfaro from behind. Jerry, the left back also rose to the occasion, clearing the danger a number of times.
The hosts were desperate to salvage a point from the game and Sumeet Passi, the young India national team striker replaced left-back Shouvik Ghosh. NorthEast had ten corners in the match, but failed to make any of them count even though they had free-headers from inside the box. Romaric had caught Jerry out of position once but failed to test Karanjit, while the former Salgaocar custodian thwarted danger once in the dying minutes.
Chennaiyin were able to remain loyal to their plan and started their three-match away trip with a very important win. The team had lost three of its first five matches in the second edition, but the start this season has been much better as they jump to the third place with a game in hand. This side doesn’t have many outlets for goal and it will be interesting whether Peluso can bail them out of the problem.
For the toppers, it was a good wake-up call and the gaffer will have to regroup them with only two fixtures to be played in the next fifteen days. The Napoli striker’s fine goal-scoring form has been their main strength till date, but the team will hope Nicolas Velez and Romaric also join the party soon.
"What made the difference betweent he winning and the losing team today was the mentality," Materazzi told in the post-match press conference. He was spot on with the assessment.