Chennai City FC had a sizeable advantage at the top of the standings midway in the league campaign. But their performances in the past couple of games has seen Akbar Nawas' men being pulled back a bit.
Against Aizawl FC, they were let off by a whisker despite leading 4-1 at one time. Before earning a hard-fought win against Indian Arrows, they went down 1-0 against Real Kashmir and their latest 3-3 draw against NEROCA further emphasise that the Southerners have let down their guard at a crucial stage of the league.
It is not that they have lost the fluidity in attack or they are trying something different. But they sem to take things easy once they take a solid lead.
When Chennai hosted Aizawl, they were 4-1 ahead till the 90th minute and within two minutes they conceded twice, almost allowing the visitors to come back into the game and snatch a point. Almost in the same vein, they granted NEROCA the license to get a foothold in the match and thereafter the Manipuri side took the match by the scruff of its neck to forge a memorable comeback.
It is important to finish matches and to maintain the same level of concentration until the final whistle, irrespective of the scoreline. And Chennai failed to do both in Imphal. Even if they had continued to play their natural possessional style of football, things could have been different.
Right from the first whistle, NEROCA were pressing higher up the pitch and yet Chennai managed to weave their way out from the back as they have done throughout the season. But after the players came out of the tunnel for the second half it was a completely different Chennai side. Not only they were unable to play out from the back but also their off-the-ball movements had vanished completely. After NEROCA got their first, Retamero's men smelt blood and went for the kill and Chennai's defence cracked under pressure.
The hosts started pouring more bodies in the attacking third which further rattled a defence which has looked shaky in the absence of Roberto Eslava. The Spanish defender is a player who marshalls the entire backline and exudes confidence which the youngsters like Gourav Bora and Ajith Kamaraj feed on. In the absence of their defensive general Chennai's lack of leadership and experience was exploited by NEROCA. During the second goal, Bora left Chencho Gyeltshen unmarked, for which the Bhutanese made him pay.
The introduction of Abdul Salam proved to be a master-stroke by Retamero as apart from his defensive duties, he was contributing in attack with his long throw-ins. Chennai's all-Indian centre back pairing of Gourav Bora and Regin M. had a tough time neotiating those parabolic deliveries into the box and were struggling to clear their lines amidst a jungle of legs. It was their failure to clear one of those throw-ins that ultimately resulted in the equaliser in the 88th minute. Regin lost the aerial battle to Chidi and the ball fell for Aryn Williams whose volley found the back of the net in the blink of an eye.
It is high time that the Coimbatore-based side tighten their backline and more importantly play with the same intensity for the entire 90 minutes. Champion sides are able to steady their ship come what may and Chennai need to prove their mettle in these rough waters. They are yet to lock horns against Mohun Bagan and Churchill Brothers and a slip in these matches will definitely hurt their title aspirations.