By Abhishek Purohit
A part from silverware, the grit and consistency shown by Cheniyin FC over the past two editions of the Indian Super League (ISL) again makes it heavy favourites in the cash-rich football tourment this year.
While in the first year they reached the semi-fils, they staged a remarkable comeback last year after being at the bottom of the points table. At one stage it seemed they would fail to even qualify for the semi-fils but coach Marco Materazzi, a World Cup winner with Italy in 2006, masterminded the team’s fairytale come back with a 3-2 victory over FC Goa in the fil.
This year, however, the stakes are much higher. Apart from the pressure of defending the title, the urge to once again raise the bar can deflate any team and Cheniyin are no different.
Materazzi, an Inter Milan legend, fully understands it will be even harder to retain the title. But the Italian’s tactical brain and grit will once again help them overturn difficult times.
“Last year we showed both quality and character to bounce back from the bottom of the table and make it to the playoffs. I think Cheniyin FC eventually won the trophy, deservingly,” said Materazzi.
Can Cheniyin FC do the same this year? “It is always more difficult to retain the title than winning it, but I believe it is in my squad to go all the way again,” he added.
Cheniyin’s hallmark all through the ISL has been its continuity in keeping together a core group of players. The franchise retained nine players from the first year and now have 14 players from the last season.
No team boasts of such continuity and working with the same core group will help Materazzi a great deal. This is already reflected in pre-tourment friendlies in Italy where Materazzi’s team has already won three successive matches.
However, this time, the absence of two key players — Colombian striker Stiven Mendoza and Brazilian playmaker Elano — can prove detrimental.
Cheniyin’s success last year was built on the scoring prowess of Mendoza, who finished as the top scorer and the best player of ISL. The New York City FC player won’t be part of the side this term and Materazzi will need Indian intertiol Jeje Lalpekhlua to take up more responsibility.
Jeje stood out for them with six goals and three assists last year and has since continued with his irrepressible form, scoring goals on the intertiol front as well as for his I-League club Mohun Bagan.
Marquee player and captain Elano, along with Brono Pelissari, is the other major foreign absentee this term.
Another big loss for the franchise is goalkeeper Edel Bete. The Armenian goalkeeper won the ISL title for two successive seasons with two different teams and has now signed up with FC Pune City.
While the absence of at least three foreign stars will hold back Cheniyin FC a little, on the positive side, the defending champions still have the likes of Berrd Mendy and Raphael Augusto to build a side around.
They have been reinforced by Norway and Liverpool legend John Arne Riise, who played for Delhi Dymos in the last two editions. They targeted Dymos again for recruiting midfielder Hans Mulder.
Materazzi will hope that two new Italian strikers, Maurizio Peluso and Davide Succi, will prove him right.
“We are going to take one game at a time and are well aware that every team has improved. The ISL is a very competitive league with games coming thick and fast over a short period; so for me every team stands an equal chance of making the top four and that is our first target. After that, we will see how well we can do in the knockouts,” said Materazzi.
Goalkeepers: Duwayne Kerr, Karanjit Singh, Pawan Kumar
Defenders: John Arne Riise, Berrd Mendy, Abhishek Das, Eli Sabia, Eder Monteiro, llapan Mohanraj, Mehrajuddin Wadoo, Dhachandra Singh, Siam Hanghal
Midfielders: Hans Mulder, Harmanjot Khabra, Raphael Augusto, Manuele Blasi, Thoi Singh, Zakeer Mundampara, Dhapal Ganesh
Forwards: Jeje Lalpekhlua, Baljit Sahni, Jayesh Rane, Davide Succi, Maurizio Peluso, Dudu Omagbemi, Daniel Lalhlimpuia, Uttam Rai
(Abhishek Purohit can be contacted at email@example.com)