The Marina Machans’ ability to neutralize the opposition’s two key cogs was pivotal to their success on the night.

Chennaiyin FC surprised many by winning the final of the Indian Super League season 4 in a thrilling fashion, by defeating hosts and the dominant Bengaluru FC 3-2. A magnificent performance from Chennaiyin was channelled through a stunning brace from defender Mailson Alves and a wonderful curling effort from Raphael Augusto which helped them earn a comeback victory after going down to a goal within the first ten minutes of the game.

But recovering from a precarious position hasn’t been a new thing for the Marina Machans this season, as John Gregory’s side have done it many times in what has been  a stellar productive campaign for them. A lot was on the line in this finale with the roaring Blues looking to continue their home dominance by winning the ISL title in their inaugural season in the competition, which would’ve seen them affirm their status as the preeminent club of Indian club.

The stakes were high for Chennaiyin as well, with the Marina Machans looking to compete with ATK as the most successful side in ISL history. They did just that by winning the title which is their second in three years. While this season’s win is vastly different from the dramatic fashion in which they won the championship in 2015, but the way they won after having a disastrous start to the season is nothing short of remarkable.

After having an absolutely disastrous campaign last season which saw them finish in 7th place, Chennaiyin rebuilt their squad amazingly this season and brought in some key players all across the pitch. The likes of Henrique Sereno, Gregory Nelson and Inigo Calderon all proved to be sold signings in the long run and played a big part in their success throughout the term.

While they started the season in a terrible fashion which saw them lose 2-3 to FC Goa at home, they recovered pretty quickly as their defense tightened up. There were initially a few doubts about John Gregory’s management skills, but the Englishman quickly put tose to bed by providing results for his side. The fact that Chennaiyin did not lose two games on the trot at any point this season and recovered from each defeat even more emphatically is a testament to the mental strength of the squad.

Mailson Alves was immense at the back for Chennaiyin all season

The first and arguably most important pillar of success for them this season was getting the duo of Mailson Alves and Henrique Sereno working as a unit. The two were absolute rocks at the back for Chennaiyin and were heavily supported by Inigo Calderon, who at the age of 36, won the Fittest Player of the Season award for his tireless performances. Young Jerry Lalrinzuala had another amazing season which saw him put in some mature performances and maintain a strong defensive shape for his side.

The defenders not only maintained a strong defensive shape, but were clinical in attack as well and scored many vital goals for the team throughout the season. Prior to Alves’ brace in the final, the defenders(barring Jerry) had scored seven goals out of Chennaiyin’s 28 upto the semi-finals.

Also, the midfield of Chennaiyin was a really well-balanced one which was led by Raphael Augusto, who was given a lot of freedom thanks to the solidity offered by the trio of Dhanpal Ganesh, Bikramjit Singh and Anirudh Thapa. Ganesh and Bikramjit were energetic in the middle of the park and the former covered for his defence very well, while young Thapa also scored a few important goals for his side while retaining possession for Chennaiyin many a times.

Jeje Lalpekhlua led the line well

Meanwhile, upfront Chennaiyin had the ever-present Jeje Lalpekhlua for their success and while the striker didn’t score as many goals, he had a similar influence over his team’s attack. Jeje’s work-rate and hold-up play was excellent throughout the season and even when he wasn’t scoring, he was making a massive contribution to his team’s success because of his movement and awareness.

When it comes to Bengaluru FC, they were absolutely lethal prior to the finale and looked clear favourites to win knowing the occasion. But Albert Roca’s tactics didn’t work on the day, with his move to a back three failing miserably. While his go-to left-back Subhashish Bose was suspended for the match, Roca could’ve easily gone with Nishu Kumar  in his place and played Erik Paartulu in midfield for such a crunch game.

Talisman Sunil Chhetri also had a topsy-turvy game which started with him putting his side ahead with a stunning diving header to send the stadium into raptures, but he wasn’t effective after that. Chhetri was marked out of the game by Chennaiyin, who made sure to give him no space and make things very frustrating for both him and Miku who were neutralized just like Gregory had stated his team would look to do.

Also, Chhetri and Miku were too far apart and not close enough to link-up with each other at any point in the game, which made things very difficult for the lethal duo. They failed to work as a pair, something which badly hurt Bengaluru who will have to go back to the drawing board and look to do something special in the AFC Cup this season.

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John Gregory got the best out of his team

But much of Chennaiyin’s success was due to the commendable work done by Gregory, who after taking a two-year break from management, came back with a bang in the ISL. It was a very happy inaugural season for him in India and his risk of trying to relaunch his career at Chennaiyin worked like a treat. The southerners weren’t the most attractive or attacking side in the ISL, but he made sure he came up with a method which suited his group of players and got them fighting for each other on the pitch.

All in all, it was a fantastic season for the Marina Machans who have made sure that Chennai have emerged as another power centre in Indian Football apart from the likes of Bengaluru, Kolkata and the NorthEast. But their real test will come in the AFC Cup where they will play for the pride of the nation in the continental tournament.

For, if Indian football is to be taken seriously, Indian clubs need to perform well in tournaments like the AFC Cup and them performing well in these competitions is also important for the growth of football in India. Bengaluru FC have shown themselves to be able to match the top teams on the continent, it’s now upto the ISL champions to do the same and perform equally well.