When Andrea Orlandi was picked out by Raphael Augusto with a square ball from the byline as early as in the seventh minute of Chennaiyin FC's Indian Super League (ISL) clash against ATK on Sunday, it seemed the South Indian outfit would get a much-needed early lead in a crucial game.
But the midfielder, as has been typical for Chennaiyin FC throughout the season, would shoot wide with an open goal gaping at him from close range. John Gregory had both his hands on his head, wondering how his team were not 1-0 up. That chance was typical of how bad the defending champions have been in front of goal.
It has been the case throughout the season. The forwards have wasted chance after chance in most of the matches and that has contributed to them picking just five points from ten games. It is not a record that one would expect the defending champions to have.
Their problems in front of goal were magnified against ATK as well. Jeje Lalpekhlua, their topscorer from last season, has looked a shadow of his former self and seems to be mired in self-doubt and is low on confidence. He hardly had a meaningful touch of the ball against ATK and had to be taken off in the second-half.
The worst part is that the alternative option, Carlos Salom, has fared even worse. Salom might have a goal to his name this season but has been atrocious as a front man. He lacks the close control needed to operate in the box and his finishing isn't top-notch either. The Palestinean has been guilty of missing a host of chances and it was the case on Sunday night as well.
Thoi Singh, Orlandi and Issac Vanmalsawma were also guilty parties in front of goal as Chennaiyin succumbed to a 3-2 loss.
ATK, on the other hand, have picked up three important points which puts them in the mix for a play-off spot and scored three goals in a match for the first time this season. While Steve Coppell has reason to be pleased about his team's attack, his team's defensive organisation was not the best.
They allowed Chennaiyin to create a lot of chances and if not for their poor finishing, they would have ended up on the losing side.
Manuel Lanzarote, as usual, was his influential self. His movement was brilliant and passing ability unrivalled. He fashioned a couple of good chances and initiated the move that led to the first penalty. He was composed from the spot as well, converting two penalties which ultimately handed the two-time champions all three points.
Jayesh Rane, sporting a white crop of hair, had his best ISL game in an ATK shirt. He scored a terrific opener from 30 yards which was also his first goal in two seasons. Moreover, he was enterprising on the wings and had the beating of young Jerry Lalrinzuala every single time he came up against him.
It was no surprise to see Jerry hauled off by Gregory at half-time for young Tondonba Singh.
But despite that, Chennaiyin know that their plight is of their own making. When a team performs poorly in front of goal for a period of, say, 10 games, there is not much to debate.
"We have played everybody. We have given Jeje plenty of chances. Carlos (Salom) has had chances. Thoi (Singh), Francis (Fernandes), Issac (Vanlalsawma) have had all opportunities. (Andrea) Orlandi has got games. The goalkeepers have also got chances. The players can’t say they haven’t got chances. We have supported them," lamented Gregory after the match.
“But when you get chances in matches and not finish them, that’s the difference between winning and losing."
Yes, a lot of players who had brilliant campaign last year have underperformed for the reigning champions but their problems have only been compounded by their woes in front of goal. The team has to collectively take responsibility for that. Even the management, to an extent. Jeje's alternatives are Salom, who has been very poor, and a washed up Mohammed Rafi who doesn't even make the matchday squad.
Chennaiyin FC fans have been left praying for a miracle and will be doing so in the AFC Cup as well, unless the club puts the January transfer window to good use.