Hero I-League champions, Chennai City FC emerged 4-2 victors over Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) outfit, FC Pune City in a thrilling pre-quarter final encounter at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Sunday evening. They will, as a result, progress to the quarter-finals of the competition while the Stallions’ adventure ends here.
The match was always going to be one to watch out for given both sides’ form off late, and the opening exchanges proved it. Both had a chance each within the first three minutes but neither could make the most of it. The Stallions midfield comprising of Adil Khan and Marko Stankovic held control in attack and defense, giving hardly any space to the likes of Pedro Javier Manzi and Néstor Gordillo to work with.
FC Pune City had two glorious chances in the space of ten minutes around the midway point of the first half. Adil released Marcelo Pereira on the left, who in turn picked out Iain Hume free inside the box. The Canadian headed his ball on target, but Mauro Boerchio pulled out a sensational save to keep the match goalless. Hume then, turned provider for Marcelo, for the second of those chances, but the Brazilian lobbed his shot over the onrushing Boerchio.
The Chennai attack had been quiet until then, but somehow managed to break through the reasonably sound Stallions rearguard to open the scoring. Néstor exchanged some neat passes on Hero I-League champions’ left-hand side and ran at will towards the backtracking Pune defense before picking out Ameerudeen Mohaideeen on the right. The forward squared the ball leaving Manzi to do the rest.
His and Chennai’s second came shortly afterwards as Néstor turned on a second ball and immediately released the no.19, who turned Matt Mills inside-out before slotting the ball past a helpless Kamaljit Singh. The Stallions looked to be stunned by then but were back in the tie five minutes later. Chennai defender, Gaurav Bora was caught on the ball by Marcelo, after which he slammed the ball past Boerchio leaving the scoreboard at 2-1 in favor of the Hero I-League champions going into the break.
Minutes into the second 45 and Chennai City found themselves a man down. Defender Charles Lourdusamy went in with his studs up against Hume and in doing so, fouled the Pune no.7 following which the referee gave him his marching orders.
Manzi however, could have scored from nothing six minutes later, but his lob was well predicted by Kamaljit in the Stallions goal. Up at the other end, Marcelo stormed his way past four defenders into the Chennai box. Bora was unsuccessful in legally handing the Brazilian’s trickery and fouled him, for which he was then penalized. Stankovic stepped up to take the spot-kick and converted with ease.
The Pune equalizer spurred Chennai on and were rewarded for their adventure right at the hour mark. Adil used too much of his body on one of the opposition attackers in his own box, giving the referee another opportunity to award a penalty. The prolific Manzi stepped out and dually obliged to hand his team the advantage.
Pune rallied on to make their numerical advantage count, risking men forward and leaving the dangerous Manzi with all the room to roam in. Fifteen minutes later, they were made to rue that choice. The Spaniard, after being released by Néstor, ran at the Stallions defense and looked to feed it back to his countrymen, who smartly dummied the pass to allow another Spaniard, Sandro Rodriguez to get on the scoresheet. The Stallions led again by Marcelo tried to make something of the last quarter but were thwarted in their attempt by some resolute Chennai defending.
At the post-match press conference, head coach of Chennai City Akbar Nawas expressed his delight with his players’ performances, Manzi in particular. “I think it was good. At the end of the day, it is the players who played the game. Credit to the players, credit to Manzi who scored the goals. They showed today that they always have the hunger to go out there and do the best that they can,” he said.
Talking about the team’s mentality after the red card, Nawas said, “I mean with the red card, we did not want to change the way we play. We maintained our shape. If the players did not believe in what they do, we would not have got those goals.”
From Pune’s end, head coach Phil Brown shared his thoughts on the difference between the two sides. “It was a combination of a couple of things. The first 15-20 minutes, we were in control. But the difference was that their striker had two chances and he scored. Our striker had 4-5 chances and we didn’t score. We came up against the I-League champions and you could see that tonight. There was a belief about them and confidence - almost an arrogance, but that is not a bad thing,” he remarked.