The Marina Machans assistant coach expressed satisfaction with the club’s work during pre-season.

Chennaiyin FC come into the 2021-22 Indian Super League (ISL) season with a lot of expectations, a new-look squad and with a good pre-season under their belt. The Marina Machans have been in their bio-bubble in Goa training for the better part of the last seven weeks.

They have also played a handful of pre-season games, which has set the squad in a good tone ahead of the eighth season of the league. Therefore, the mood ahead of the first press meet was upbeat in the two-time champions’ camp. The club’s assistant coach Syed Sabir Pasha and striker Rahim Ali answered questions from the media ahead of the new season.

Life in bubble

The 2021-22 ISL season will also be played behind closed doors with teams under strict bio-bubble guidelines. Being part of the bubble has not been easy across sports, as there have been many instances of players opting out of tournaments as a consequence.

When asked about their preparation and the challenges in the bubble, coach Syed Sabir Pasha replied, “It is not easy for anyone (in the bubble). But, we know what we are here for. It has been like a family for everyone since we’ve come to the bubble. The understanding among the players is getting better.

“It is the same as last year. For new coaches who have come in for the first time, they are finding it new. But, we have adjusted to it. The only way we can forget these difficulties is by playing football. Once the matches begin, we will be fully focused on the things which we have to work on. So, the time will go by and I don’t think it should be a big problem,” he added.

Pre-season

Chennaiyin FC lost 2-3 to Bengaluru FC in their final pre-season game on Tuesday

Chennaiyin FC have had a good pre-season, having trained for seven weeks in their bio-bubble in Goa. The club have played five pre-season games in Goa, winning twice and losing thrice.

Speaking on the work done by the team in pre-season, Pasha said, “We have had five games where we have had a chance to set the team. The gelling of players within the team is really good. We are becoming a unit now and we are on the right path. Things are going right and I hope the season goes well.

“We have tried many combinations. There have been some new players who have come into the team, so it is not easy for everyone to gel in. We have been able to do that well. The team has been showing a lot of progress. We have settled in well here, the players know what is needed of them and what they need to deliver. These matches have helped us in a good way, as we’ve gotten to know the new players.”

A minor concern though, ahead of the new season, is Rafael Crivellaro’s lack of match preparation. The midfielder didn’t feature in a single pre-season game for Chennaiyin FC. When asked about his situation, Sabir Pasha answered, “He had a muscle injury, but it is getting better. In that case, we didn’t want to risk him, as he is an important player for us. We have been monitoring him closely. He has started training with us. He will be getting more intense workouts in the upcoming days, so we are positive about him.”

Chennaiyin’s attacking fortunes

A major part of Chennaiyin’s insipid form last season was their attack’s inability to find the back of the net. The Marina Machans scored the least number of goals in the league last season.

But, they have once again strengthened their squad with the experienced additions of Mirlan Murzaev, Lukasz Giekiwicz, and Jobby Justin. When asked for his views on the attack this season, coach Sabir Pasha replied, “Last year we created more chances, but we didn’t take them. We did not have bad games, it was just that we couldn’t score. This season is the same, we will be creating chances and we are positive enough that we will take it. Once we do, I know we will be a threat to the other teams.

“As for who will play, that is for the coach to decide as he has tried many combinations. Rahim joined us recently from the U-23 team. He came in good form and scored also in the pre-season game,” the coach added.

Jobby Justin is coming off of an ACL injury that sidelined him last season. The road back to playing professionally has not been easy for Justin. But coach Syed Sabir Pasha has placed his trust in the former East Bengal striker to do well.

“Jobby is a strong lad. We see him in the sessions and he has been doing good. It is not going to be easy for him, as he has not been playing for a long time. When it comes to playing matches, it will be a different level to what he has been playing now, so we will see how he reacts. I feel the attack is good and once we start scoring, I feel we can solve the problems with our attack this season,” Pasha added.

Rahim Ali’s season to watch?

Rahim Ali impressed for India in the SAFF Championship and AFC U-23 Asian Cup Qualifiers

Despite their attacking talents, the new season brings a lot more focus on Chennaiyin FC’s talented striker Rahim Ali. The 21-year old is among a precious little pool of young Indian forwards in the league. He also comes in good form, having been part of the Indian team and the U-23 team in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup Qualifiers. Therefore, this season could well catapult him to the doors of the national team on a regular basis. Therefore, his performances will be keenly watched and scrutinized.

When asked about the challenges ahead of the new season, Rahim replied, “As a player, you always have to work hard to find a place in the first team. I will always keep working hard. The last two (pre-season) games I have personally done well, so I’m feeling good. I will give it everything to get to the first-team. If I play as a No. 9 then there is the same role for me as I did in the U-23 team. I’m focused on helping the team and to keep learning.”

Expectations from new season

Chennaiyin FC have stacked their squad with experienced players this season. Therefore, their quality and their reputation make them a team to watch out for.

But, coach Syed Sabir Pasha exercised caution when asked about the squad. He stated, “It’s mostly a new squad. But, the most important thing is that many players know this league. The new foreign players will need time to adapt, but it won’t be long and difficult for them, as they have experience playing in different leagues. The transition phase is always there when it is a new team. But, the team will overcome this as they are experienced and have played at the highest level. Hence, adapting will not be a problem for the players.”

Speaking about his expectations from the team, he added, “The team has to fit demands. It is important how you understand the coach and the team. I’ve been here in the ISL for many years. No match is going to be easy for us. On- paper, you can maybe say that ATKMB is good or Bengaluru FC is good, but everyone knows that it depends on the team that performs on the day. This league is very closely-fought and therefore, I don’t think there is a lot of difference between the teams. The performance on the day is what matters. We need to improve from last season, we have to put the ball into the net. We need to start well and things will follow for us.”

Working with Bozidar Bandovic

Syed Sabir Pasha has worked with four coaches in his five-year stint at Chennaiyin, including the latest one, Bozidar Bandovic. The Montenegrin brings the experience of coaching in the knockout stages of both the UEFA Champions League and the AFC Champions League.

“He is clear and direct with his points,” Syed Pasha said when asked about working with Bandovic, “He gives the players the targets, what they do well, what they don’t. His approach is clear. The coach has been communicating well with players. Every player is the same for him and he gives importance to everybody. He has been doing a great job and the team has been responding well.”

Impact of ISL on Indian players

The experienced coach spoke of his admiration for the league and its impact on Indian players. When asked for his views on the ISL, he replied, “ISL is the biggest platform in Indian football. It has created chances for youngsters to come out and prove themselves. The media and the fans are involved with the league. So, it is a big occasion for these young players coming in.”

Sabir Pasha further added, “I feel the biggest changes are coming in professionally. When you share the dressing room with players who have played in the World Cup, it brings a change in the young players as well. You have seen that with Chennaiyin FC. (Anirudh) Thapa and Jerry (Lalrinzuala) came in as young boys and shared the dressing room with such a big player like Marco Materazzi. So, they have developed a lot of character. Seeing these players now, I feel the confidence of the players have gone up. The talent was never in question, even without the ISL, but the confidence levels have gone up a lot,” coach Pasha added before bidding adieu.

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