Reigning Indian Super League (ISL) champions, Chennaiyin FC, succumbed to their third loss in a row on Thursday after falling to a 4-3 defeat at home to NorthEast United. As was the case in the opening two games of the season, John Gregory's team was culpable of committing uncharacteristic defensive mistakes which has seen the club equal its worst-ever losing streak.
However, the Englishman cannot be faulted for the bold approach with which he went into the game. Underperforming Jeje Lalpekhlua was dropped to the bench and Carlos Salom was sent on to lead the lines. Gregory also tried to address his midfield woes by deploying Inigo Calderon in place of Germanpreet Singh who has been listless in the opening two games. Francisco Fernandes was named as the right-back instead.
For around 30 minutes, it seemed the boldness paid off for Gregory. A Rowllin Borges own-goal and a well-worked goal from Thoi Singh, his first for the club, had put Chennaiyin FC 2-0 up. NorthEast were being massacred on the wings, especially down the left wing where Jerry Lalrinzuala and Issac Vanmalsawma found a lot of joy.
Though Ogbeche capitalised on an indecisive parry from Karanjit Singh to pull one back, Thoi immediately made it 3-1 after another move that originated from the left wing. All seemed rosy at that point for the home team. Their title defence looked to be well and truly back on track.
But they did not account for the guile of Federico Gallego and Bartholomew Ogbeche. The clinical finishing exhibited by Ogbeche, which saw him net a 10-minute hat-trick which knocked the wind out of Chennaiyin FC's sails, certainly deserves to grab the headlines. But Uruguayan attacking midfielder Federico Gallego was the engine behind it all.
The 28-year-old asserted himself in midfield, linking up the play at lightning quick speed. Chennaiyin's makeshift midfield just could not deal with his guile and movement. It was no wonder that Gallego was involved in all four of NorthEast's goals.
It was his shot that Karanjit parried for Ogbeche's first goal. He was involved in an intricate passing move that led to the Nigerian's second goal before threading a superlative through-ball for Ogbeche's third. He started the move that saw Borges net the winner as well.
Make no mistake, acknowledging Gallego's performance is not taking anything away from Ogbeche whose movement and anticpation were top-notch. His leadership skills also was evident, firing up his troops on the field even when they were 3-1 down.
Chennaiyin FC, despite the energetic start they made, looked like they lacked a bit of composure in possession. Even when they were 3-1 up, they kept misplacing passes and gave the ball away cheaply. That, to an extent, helped the NorthEast midfield to take control and turn around a dire situation.
Once Ogbeche scored his second goal to pull the score back to 3-2, the home team's defence was a bag of nerves everytime NorthEast United attacked. An equaliser and a winner looked inevitable and so it turned out.
But John Gregory has shown that he is ready to mix things up and embrace new ideas to help the Champions get their title defence back on track. It almost paid off on Thursday but Eelco Schattorie's charges displayed commendable character to prey on Chenaniyin FC's weakness and win all three points.
Chennaiyin FC have a couple of away games coming up against Delhi Dynamos and ATK and if they can sort their issues in defence and midifeld, they should be able to turn this around. The Highlanders, on the other hand, find themselves atop the table and will now have the unenviable task of holding on to that.