Chennai City channelled their inner giant killers on Sunday night when they secured a memorable 2-1 victory over I-League juggernauts in an entertaining I-League affair.
After East Bengal’s Trinidad and Tobago striker Willis Plaza had scored the opening goal via an exquisite header in the first half, it looked as though Chennai’s final home I-League game of the season would end in defeat. Resolute performances from Chennai’s local lads meant Nandhakumar pulled one back for Chennai in the second half. With both teams looking for a winner in the dying minutes, Chennai emerged the winners when Prasanth Karuthadathkuni scored from five yards out.
Marcos Vinicius returned to the starting line-up in place of his fired close pal Haroon Fakhruddin Amiri, while Soundararajan named an otherwise unchanged line-up from the 1-1 home draw with Bengaluru Football Club. East Bengal, meanwhile, made five changes from the team that capitulated at home to Churchill Brothers as Trevor Morgan looked to keep up with table toppers Aizawl. Out went Mohammed Rafique, Robert Lalthlamuana, Robin Gurung, Rowlin Borges and Anwar Ali as Arnab Mondal, Rahul Bheke, Plaza, Lalrindika Ralte and Narayan Das all returned to the starting line-up.
Chennai started the game on the front foot against the I-League juggernauts despite coach Soundararajan revealing that he would espouse a defensive set-up against mightier opponents. Either side continued to create chances on either end of the pitch, but the first clear-cut chance of the game came on three minutes when East Bengal’s Australian striker Chris Payne dribbled past the yellow shirts to eke out enough time and space to have a crack at Karanjit Singh’s goal. However, much to Soundararajan’s delight, the veteran shot-stopper made parried the ball.
Chennai responded quickly as they countered at every possible chance. Their first chance, however, took them nine minutes to have a sniff of Rehenesh’s goal. Skipper Dharmaraj Ravanan sparked a superb counter-attack after making a crunch interception near Chennai’s 18-yard-box; he found fellow Tamil Nadu player Nandhakumar down the right flank whose cross Charles controlled before setting up compatriot Tank. Tank’s effort, however, was parried by Rehenesh.
As time passed, Chennai players looked tired, and an East Bengal goal looked inevitable. Rahul Bheke beat Debabrata Roy before sending a cross in; Plaza leapt above the Chennai defence to nod home the opener two minutes from the first-half whistle. A desperate move from Soundararajan saw Chennai take off underperforming striker Tank for another underperforming striker Raegan Albarnas.
Chennai regained some control over the game in the second half although East Bengal looked as ruthless as they can be. Nandhakumar, who has been a rare bright spark in an otherwise dull team, scored his much-deserved I-League goal on 57 minutes after slick footwork from Charles, Raegan and Soosairaj.
Soundararaj elected to make a baffling change again as he took off Dhanpal Ganesh to introduce Denson Devadas, who earned a yellow minutes after coming on for a challenge on Mehtab Hossain. He made a forced substitution six minutes from time when he brought on Prasanth Karuthadathkuni for injured Soosairaj.
The East Bengal manager, meanwhile, brought on Mohammed Rafique and Abinash Ruidas in the first half before introducing Bikash Jairu in the second half for Australian forward Chris Payne.
Either side continued to look for the winner in the dying minutes as Karanjit and Rehenesh were kept busy by the attackers; however, it was Chennai who emerged victors in the end when Prasanth controlled the rebound to slot home the winner from close range after Rehenesh had blocked Charles’ initial shot.
Chennai climb to eighth, one place above fellow debutants Minerva Punjab while East Bengal’s title chance dealted a major blow.