19 points from a possible 21, 19 goals in seven games while conceding just six, Chennaiyin FC could not have asked for a stronger entry into the Indian Super League (ISL) playoffs.
That everyone had written them off after failing to score a single goal in their first four games and had to deal with a managerial change midway through the season only adds to the brilliance of their feat. That their qualification arrived against a direct competitor in Mumbai City FC and the goal was scored by a former player of the same team is the icing on the cake.
Ahead of the big tie, Mumbai needed a win to qualify, whereas a draw would have worked for Chennaiyin, provided they defeat a hapless NorthEast United in their final fixture. But in football, playing for a draw is a recipe for disaster and both sides made their intentions known in the opening minutes of the second half.
There were no real goal-scoring opportunities in the first half, with either side testing waters and taking a calculated approach going forward. There were times when crosses at either end were met with a shortage of men inside the box, with both teams looking to avoid being hit on the counter.
The game sprung to life in the second half after end-to-end action in two frantic minutes which saw two tactical fouls on the break and a sending off for Sourav Das. Vishal Kaith was cautioned with a yellow for getting off his line to deny Amine Chermiti and in the processs fouling the Tunisian. At the other end, Sourav was given the marching orders for a last-man foul from behind on Lallianzuala Chhangte who was through on goal.
Hence, Chennaiyin had a man advantage with about 30 minutes left on the clock. The numerical advantage doesn’t always translate to superiority and Mumbai are best placed to testify this. Some teams are hard to play against when reduced to 10 men as they tend to remain more organised and amplify their efforts to make up for the deficit.
Earlier this season, the Islanders were reduced to 10 men against Hyderabad FC when Sarthak Golui was sent off in the 67th minute. 11 minutes later, Modou Sougou doubled their lead after despite being a goal up and a man down.
Chennaiyin did not budge from their game plan of prioritising a solid defence and hitting the opposition through Rafael Crivellaro's through-balls. The scoreline was a fair reflection of how the watertight defence was the difference between the two sides.
The hosts were sloppy after the sending off. They presented Chennaiyin with a couple of invitations to take the lead on the set-piece with an unmarked Eli Sabia and Nerijus Valskis being inches away from settling the tie. In fact, Mumbai were lucky that the goal did not arrive at an earlier time.
They were not as impressive at the other end either with Mohamed Larbi wasting a plethora of set-piece opportunities with very poor deliveries. Chermiti had a big chance in the 67th minute but his finish could not match his impressive cushioned take of Diego Carlos’ pass from deep and the ball strayed wide off the far post.
After a solid game at the back, it had to be former Mumbai captain Goian who decided the game with his first goal in Chennaiyin colours which arrived in the 83rd minute. The visitors were patient, and it paid off.
One can go on and on about tactics and how Owen Coyle has turned it around for the two-time champions in a spectacular manner. But it takes more than just tactics to achieve what the Marina Machans just did. The ironclad will, the mentality to chase the game until the final whistle and the belief that they can go against all odds and secure a play-off spot ensured Chennaiyin pulled off the improbable. Once again, the Irishman deserves credit for instilling the same in his players.