Going into Sunday's Indian Super League (ISL) clash against ATK in Kolkata, Chennaiyin FC knew they had to win at least two of their next three away games to clinch a top-four spot which had looked absolutely out of the question when John Gregory parted ways with the club back in November last year.
However, one of the two wins had to come against Mumbai City FC who are also in the mix for one of the spots. After getting one of those wins, courtesy a 3-1 triumph in Kolkata, Chennaiyin have set themselves up perfectly for the showdown in Mumbai.
Of course, it won't be by any stretch of the imagination a cakewalk against Jorge Costa's men next Friday. But it represents a sensational turnaround for the Marina Machans under Owen Coyle.
When he took over in early December, the team was wallowing in misery. They were struggling to churn out wins, with just one which came against a struggling Hyderabad FC to show for in six matches, and score goals. In the next 10 matches, Coyle has managed to notch six wins and two draws, scoring 23 goals in the process.
He has managed to instil a confidence and winning culture around the club that was last seen almost two years ago during John Gregory's first year at the club. All those qualities were there to see at the Salt Lake stadium on Sunday against an ATK side which lacked that composure that has seen them fighting for the top spot in the league.
Chennaiyin were on the front foot right from the off, looking much more fluid in attack, thanks to the return of Andre Schembri and Anirudh Thapa to the starting XI. ATK, who have looked a bit unsure in defence this season whenever Agus Garcia has not played, were rocky at the back with Victor Mongil not exuding the same calm and composure as his compatriot.
Antonio Habas' decision to start with Anas Edathodika, pushing the impressive Sumit Rathi to the wing-back position, was also a mistake. Chennaiyin's opener, which came in the seventh minute and set the tone for the match, had the brilliance of Rafael Crivellaro written all over it. The ATK defence has to take the blame for allowing him to run through them unopposed and place a finish into the net. Mongil, Mandi Sosa, Pritam Kotal and Anas were all guilty of not putting a firm tackle in.
That early goal was exactly the dose of confidence Chennaiyin required and it was no surprise to see them edge the midfield battle. Credit must be given to Edwin Vanspaul and his intelligence in the middle of the park, often taking up key positions in the center of the park to help facilitate attacks or break up opposition moves. Thapa also had a good game, highlighting his importance to Coyle's set up.
ATK, despite the shakiness at the back, always carried a threat while going forward, thanks to the vision of Javier Hernandez and Edu Garcia and the persistence of Roy Krishna. Prabir Das, as the right wing-back, was also outstanding going forward, regularly offering an outlet and pinging in a volley of menacing crosses throughout the match. But his eagerness in galloping forward meant Lallianzuala Chhangte had space to work with down the left wing and had quite a few chances to score on the night, only his profligacy letting him down.
For Chennaiyin FC, Schembri is a key figure during set-pieces. His intelligent positioning has already seen him score two goals from corners and he had his third in the 39th minute, though thanks to a howler from ATK custodian Arindam Bhattacharya. There was no surprises there though, given that goalkeeping howlers have been a constant theme throughout the season.
Vishal Kaith, at the other end, also had one of his poor performances. His communication with the backline was virtually non-existent and it was no surprise to see Krishna pull a goal back for ATK almost seconds after Schembri had scored to make it 2-1, with Kaith in no position to read the pass to him or make a save. And he almost gifted ATK an equaliser late on when he dropped a simple catch, only for Mongil to poke the loose ball wide.
The second half made for compelling watch as Chennaiyin held off an ATK side who pushed hard for an equaliser. Krishna's movement was a problem all night for Lucian Goian and co. but they held him off just about to clinch a win, with Nerijus Valskis' late third the icing on the cake.
However, as Owen Coyle was the first to admit after the game, Chennaiyin's job is not even half-done. Friday night in Mumbai will be the litmus test. But the win over ATK has shown that the Marina Machans can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league. More importantly, this win means even a draw against Mumbai City will be enough to keep their fate in their own hands.
As far as ATK are concerned, their chances of getting the top spot have taken a huge beating. They need FC Goa to lose their last match against Jamshedpur FC and then need to beat Bengaluru FC to clinch a spot in the AFC Champions League. One has to say that the Gaurs are favourites now to finish top.