On February 24, 2018, Chennai City FC (CCFC) were thrashed 7-1 by East Bengal at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata, courtesy of Dudu Omagbemi's hat-trick. After less than nine months, they came back and dominated the Red and Golds to win 2-1 at the same venue to consolidate their position on top of the table. What did the team management do in the interim period that has turned the fortunes of the club around?
The CCFC management started working on this project even before the previous season had ended. With the help of Jordi Villa, they zeroed on their foreign contingent. Pedro Manzi, Nestor Gordillo, Sandro Rodriguez and Roberto Eslava were finalised and announced before the end of last season. But they also paid equal attention to recruit the best local players as the likes of Pravitto Raju, Ameerudeen Mohaideen and Ajith Kamaraj were roped in after their brilliant performance in the local league.
Current head coach Md Akbar Nawaz's impact on the team has been profound as the young players are flourishing under his guidance. He has made some crucial positional changes to suit his style of play and they have responded well. Edwin Vanspaul, who was a right winger, has made the right-back position his own while midfielder Gourav Bora is flourishing as a centre-back.
"Edwin has understood our system very well. Since he was a wide midfielder, he has the ability to pass the ball very well. So while we attack, he comes inside from his wide position and helps us," explained Nawaz to Goal. Vanspaul has been outstanding as a right back as he has significantly worked on his defensive abilities to suit the requirements of a full-back.
If Michael Soosairaj stole the show for CCFC in the previous season, it is right winger Alexander Jesuraj who has excelled in this campaign. The 22-year-old had a good outing on the right flank against East Bengal and kept young Manoj Mohammed on his toes throughout the game. He has an exceptional sense of positioning and his goal against Indian Arrows is a testimony to it. The Tamil Nadu-born player kept lurking at the far post and skipped his marker at the nick of time to score from the rebound after Prabhsukhan Gill parried a shot from Sandro Rodriguez.
He has combined well with his Spanish team-mates in attack and has been instrumental in executing Nawaz's plans. "He helps us to utilize the width of the pitch. He puts in dangerous crosses from the wings which add variety to our attack. His ability to get into spaces is another quality which has helped him to do well," said the head coach.
In the absence of Pedro Manzi, the onus fell on Mohaideen to lead the lines against Aizawl. He kept moving into spaces and was a constant menace for centrebacks Govin Singh and Hmingthan Mawia. He was given a free role in the attack and he did not let his coach down. He drew defenders towards him which left spaces for Sandro and Nestor to operate.
The two other new faces, Raju and Kamaraj, have also settled down well in their respective roles as a midfielder and left-back. Raju has scored once and has supported Sandro and Nestor while the fullback has been brilliant in his over-lapping runs. Against Aizawl, Kamaraj handed a tough time to Vanlalduatsanga with his pace and trickery.
The overseas brigade had already been firing on all cylinders and now with the Indians stepping up their game, Chennai City have become one of the most formidable sides in I-League. Now it remains to be seen whether the Orange Brigade can keep up their form throughout the season.