AS THE THIRD EDITION of Indian Super League rolled in, Chennaiyin FC were obviously seen as one of the teams to look out for. They were the defending champions, after all, and they had retained the core of the team from last year as well as a manager.
There were reasons to believe Chennaiyin FC could become more assertive in ISL 2016 than before. After all, of the 3 franchises that remained consistent with their form throughout the first two editions of the tournament - Atletico de Kolkata, FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC - it was only Chennai that did not go through a significant change. ATK changed their successful coach and Goa, after surviving a prolonged legal battle against points deduction stemming from controversies surrounding last year's final, went through a wholesale change in ownership and management.
Yet, coming into the tournament, they appeared to be lacking in one department. As pointed out by TFG's preview of the CFC team, the defending champions had been unable to find proper replacements for the two most crucial players in their roster who were going to be absent for the first time.
Elano Blumer and Stiven Mendoza, the attacking duo who became iconic for the Super Machans by the end of ISL 2015, literally carried the franchise's attack on their shoulders. Of the 59 goals they scored in their first two campaigns, 29 were scored by either one of them. Factor in stuff like assists and key passes these players have given to other players and you end up with a situation where more than 50% of a team's goals came from just two players. When they're around, this is a major asset. Especially when one of them is an up-and-coming player like Mendoza who can pretty much ram through ISL-standard defence lines despite being heavily marked. But it becomes an issue when they're not.
Well, Mendoza went to New York City FC and Elano, due to the controversy where he had to spend a night in jail, decided not to return to India. And Chennaiyin replaced them with Hans Mulder and Dudu Omagbemi. Not that bad but nowhere as good.
And that made a difference. In the regular season, Chennaiyin FC scored only 20 goals; 4 less from last year. But that figure is inflated by the last two games where the team scored 7 goals but could only gather 1 point. So in actuality, they scored just 13 goals in the first 12 games; a gutting performance.
It would be easy to assume this was the difference and end it here. After all, when you don't score enough goals in crucial matches, you're not going to make it. And most of the Chennaiyin squad and the coaching staff remained unchanged from last year.
But there was a crucial disparity from last year in terms of defence. In 2014, though Chennaiyin topped the points table, their defence was consistently leaky. That's what ultimately caused them to lose the semi-finals to Kerala Blasters. But in 2015, they hit a sweet spot. A combination of Mehrajuddin Wadoo, Dhanachandra Singh, Mailson Alves and Alessandro Potenza under the defensive leadership of Bernard Mendy; the pace and power in the backline was just enough to contain opponent attacks. And they had an ace goalkeeper in Apoula Edel. This resulted in them playing out a season where they conceded more than 1 goal only 3 times, including the final which they overcame with offensive force.
This time, although Chennai kept most of their defenders, there were two main changes. The defensive leadership was handed over to new signing John Arne Riise. Riise, who dealt with some injury issues during the tournament, looked like a shadow of his former self. His role in the team was diminished and he was even benched for a while. And the defence was left without a stable leader guiding them throughout. The other two experienced defenders, Mendy and Mehraj, had their moments but appeared nothing as good as last year. Karanjit Singh as the keeper was good, but he wasn't Edel. There's a reason why that guy won the ISL twice, and why Pune City, with a worse defence than Chennai, conceded less goals than them.
And let's be honest, Chennaiyin FC dropped a few close points. That 2-2 draw against ATK away happened because of a late penalty given away due to individual error. They conceded a late goal against Mumbai City too, and the game ended in a 1-1 draw. Home to NorthEast United, they let in a goal in the 96th minute to end up with a 3-3 draws. It could have easily played out otherwise and given Chennai 4 extra points, which would put them well in contention for the 3rd place.
Last year, too, they finished third in the league stage.
So overall, although they have slipped from 3rd place to 7th, their quality drop wasn't quite as immense. They were partially able to fill the gap left by Elano and Mendoza, but it wasn't enough. Pair that with 3 unlucky results and that's enough points dropped to make them lose out on the playoffs for the first time. More than anything else, this goes on to show how the other franchises have improved, and just how close this competition is. And how in a short tournament like this once you've got something wrong at the core, you rarely get enough time for a thorough correction or reversal of fortunes.
2016 has been a year of change for ISL. It's possibly going to be its last appearance as an isolated private tournament. And it has been the year of fall for the three big managers of the tournament: Habas, Zico and Materazzi, all of whom failed to make it to the semis for the very first time.
But of those three, Materazzi had the best shot to retain his command in the competition. He had not changed teams like Habas or seen his team change hands like Zico. But different factors added up and Chennaiyin FC fell flat. Their reign over ISL ended just like any fairytale streak. The players, fans and even the manager in question (although it's unsure whether he will be back next season) would do well to shake this one off and start anew in 2017-18 which, hopefully, is going to be a longer, more wholesome adventure for the franchise; playing for the first time as a license-holding club in a FIFA-recognized national league.