It would be an understatement to say that Saturday night's 2-2 draw between Chennaiyin FC and SC East Bengal in the Indian Super League (ISL) was a treat for the neutrals.
A whopping 28 attempts on goal, nine on target, and four goals made for an entertaining affair at the Tilak Maidan in Vasco, Goa. But for the two sides, it would have been anything but. Both sides were desperate for wins for entirely different reasons.
Chennaiyin wanted one to get some consistency and close the gap on the league leaders. East Bengal, on the other hand, were on the lookout for their first-ever ISL win. At the end of ninety minutes, neither side got what they wanted but both teams would feel they could've got exactly what they wanted. It was that sort of a game.
For the first 45 minutes, however, it seemed that the match was playing out according to the league standings. Chennaiyin were the better side, as they have been in most of their matches, and got a deserved goal through Lallianzuala Chhangte who set clear on goal by Jakub Sylvestr who had a curious performance on the night (more on that follows).
Robbie Fowler, staring down the barrel yet again, decided to tweak his system. In came youngster Rohen Singh for Surchandra Singh (who had been scorched by Chhangte's pace) and midfielder Sehnaj Singh was hooked for former Chennaiyin striker Jeje Lalpekhlua.
The move clicked for Fowler, who started to see his team get on the ball more and threaten the Chennaiyin defence. Jeje is an underrated striker when it comes to holding up play and bringing his teammates into the game. He had been struggling with injuries for the past one or two season but there were flickering signs of him coming back to life, at least with his clever hold-up play and movement.ISL
What followed was a mad half, that saw Matti Steinmann equalised twice for East Bengal, sandwiching a Rahim Ali strike, and he should ideally have scored the winner as well. It also laid bare their deficiencies at the back where Chennaiyin should really have scored a bucket load of goals.
It could be argued that East Bengal, so to say, have arrested their slide in the ISL. They are no more a side you could roll over and get easy three points against. In the last two games, they have shown some signs of fight. Against Kerala Blasters, at least in the first half, they were impressive going forward with the trio of Jacques Maghoma, Anthony Pilkington and Mohammed Rafique linking well.
On Saturday, against an attacking Chennaiyin, Fowler’s East Bengal finally began to look threatening from set-pieces. They were in the news in the summer for having appointed a set-piece specialist in Terrence McPhillips. However, till Saturday, they didn’t look comfortable either defending set-piece situations or even threaten the opposition citadel. That seems to be changing now.
Matti Steinmann scored a couple of goals from corners and could have completed his hat-trick too. Although the goals came against a Chennaiyin FC side, who are known to be weak when it comes to defending set-piece situations, Fowler and co. will certainly take positives from their performance.
What continues to remain an area of concern for the English coach is the manner in which Chennaiyin could get behind their defence. It was thanks to the profligacy of the Chennaiyin forwards that East Bengal continued to be in the tie. Defensively, they still look shaky and this is something Fowler needs to address ahead of their tie against bottom-placed Odisha FC, which comes at a perfect time for the Red and Golds.ISL
For Chennaiyin, head coach Csaba Laszlo could not really do anything more apart from hoping for divine intervention, one feels. To his immense credit, the Hungarian's tactics have been spot on in every match apart from, possibly, the NorthEast United game which finished goalless. He has outwitted the likes of Juan Ferrando, Owen Coyle and even Sergio Lobera. But all he has to show for those are two wins and three draws from seven games.
While their set-piece defending continues to be an issue, Chennaiyin's main problem is profligate finishing. Jakub Sylvestr, as mentioned earlier, has been brilliant when it comes to approach and build-up play in Laszlo's system. His movement has been great too and he gets into promising positions with ease. However, he just cannot score goals at this moment. He should ideally have scored a hat-trick against East Bengal and probably more in the previous matches as well.
It seems to be a confidence issue. Not much you can do there apart from hope he gets a goal and his confidence back soon enough. And it is not just Sylvestr. Rafael Crivellaro, absolutely brilliant when it comes to playmaking, has wasted chances. Chhangte has been vilified for missing a glut of tap-ins recently. It was almost ironic that on a night when Chhangte found his scoring boots, Chennaiyin decided to screen the blockbuster - 'How not to score goals'!
It was nothing but a mad, mad game!