When Chennai City FC scripted a thrilling comeback against East Bengal to beat the Kolkata Giants 2-1, they took a giant stride towards the league title. Their 4-3 win over Aizawl last Thursday further consolidated their spot on the top.
But still, the Orange Brigade can ill-afford to let their guard down (as they did against Aizawl in the last 10 minutes being 4-1 up) at the business end of the league.
Out of their seven matches to go, five of them will be against sides who are currently in the top seven. Their next test is against title contender Real Kashmir FC away from home, against whom they have tasted their only defeat of the season so far.
In Srinagar, they will be playing not only against a stubborn Real Kashmir side but also have to overcome hostile weather conditions in the valley. Reports of snowfall must have already reached Akbar Nawas and the weatherman forecasts that the max temperature on matchday will hover around 5°C while the mercury might drop to -5ºC at night. The conditions will be testing to say the least and it remains to be seen how the local players of Chennai adapt to such extreme temperatures.
On the pitch, a rugged and sturdy Kashmir side will be awaiting them. David Robertson's men are in fine fettle as they have managed to remain unbeaten on their long journey on the road and have put several heavyweights on the spike during their run.
As far as their home form is concerned, they have lost only twice in six games at the TRC Turf Ground and have conceded just the four goals. Although Chennai City's Spanish armada have the ability of scoring goals at will, finding a way past the Kashmir defence on a narrow ground in hostile conditions can be tough.
If they annexe Kashmir, they will next face the hurdle of a buoyant Indian Arrows who are improving with every passing game. Although it might not require herculean effort to get three points, the young boys cannot be taken lightly as they have shown resilience while defending and swiftness while attacking on the counter in recent games.
Their away trip to NEROCA on February 11 will be another test of character. Manuel Fraile have managed to turn around this side's fortunes and their recent performances is a testimony to that. Although they have not been impressive away from home, they have been a completely different side when playing in front of their home crowd.
In Imphal they have shown consistency and have turned the Khuman Lampak stadium into a fortress. They have remained unbeaten at home since their loss against East Bengal in October which should be a good enough reason to cause a few worries for Nawas.
Then they take on a struggling Shillong Lajong but their subsequent two matches might hold the key to their championship fortunes. After hosting host Mohun Bagan, they will have a short flight to Goa to take on Churchill Brothers who are firing on all cylinders.
Playing Bagan is always a challenge and the Mariners will be in no mood to lend a helping hand to Chennai as they will be looking to finish with as many points as possible on the table.
On the other hand, If Churchill continue to keep up the pressure on the top, and Chennai slip in any of their matches, then their final few matchdays could potentially decide the fate of the title.
Nawas has done a fine job in not allowing pressure to creep into his side where youthful exuberance and experience are both abundant. But it will be interesting to find out how his side reacts on the face of a pressure-situation that a close title race produces.