Chennaiyin hosts Kerala with eye on top spot

Kerala Blasters will have to overcome the burden of history to pull off an upset at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

Chennaiyin FC is on a high, with four wins in six matches this season.   -  R. Ragu

A confident Chennaiyin FC will look to cement first spot in the standings, should Bengaluru FC lose to Jamshedpur on Thursday, as it hosts Kerala Blasters at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Friday. With 12 points in the bag, John Gregory's men are third only on goal difference behind FC Goa, which has a game in hand, and Bengaluru FC.

Its opponent Kerala has had a very slow start; the Men in Yellow registered their first win of the season only last week in the 1-0 victory over North East at home. Blasters will visit the ground off which it has never picked three points ever since the inception of the ISL, but John Gregory was quick to point out that stats will have no bearing on Friday's encounter.

"Not really (an advantage). We've never beaten North East here until this season and we put that statistic to bed. We'd never beaten ATK at home until the last time we played here. Sometimes, stats are there to be broken. It's not something that we buy into.

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"The media obviously bring out the stats more so than us. I only use stats when it gives me an advantage, but I won't be mentioning that in the team meeting," quipped the Englishman.

‘No complacency’

Kerala has been abysmal in front of goal, scoring only four goals in six games so far. But Gregory feels ISL provides no room for complacency. "I've said it many times, there are no easy games in the ISL. We cannot underestimate anybody. It's down to me to make sure there is absolutely no complacency in our defence.

"League positions mean absolutely nothing...I've been saying it for the past couple of weeks that ATK has been in a false position in the league. I certainly expect them to finish higher than where they are now. So, the fact that Kerala has not been free-scoring is irrelevant. We still have to keep them quiet. Also, having got 12 points on the board and sitting alongside BFC and Goa at the top, everybody seems to be raising their game for us. Teams will be pulling out all stops we need to be on the front foot."

Kerala objectives unchanged

Blasters, coached by René Meulensteen, comes into the game with the confidence of picking up three points. However, it is still a long way away from the top three sides and could be involved with a scrap for the fourth spot with teams around them. However, Meulesteen doesn't agree with the narrative and says the team's priorities haven't changed despite the slow start.

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"You have to stick to your plans from the beginning. The plan was to get into playoffs. You try to finish as high as possible. That is the aim for every team because of the draft and the way it is set up. There are still a lot of games left this season. Don't write off any team, it's too soon to make a conclusion. Our target is straightforward. We want to enter the playoffs and that's what we aim for," the former Manchester United first team coach said.

Despite the lacklustre campaign so far this year, Meulesteen is looking at the positives. "I keep reassuring my players that we are in an ongoing process of developing the team and fit the pieces of the jigsaw puzzles. Except for the game against Goa, we have been slowly improving, creating chances, opening teams up and score a few good goals. Hopefully, we can continue that," he said.

Back-to-back big games

Blasters has a tough end to its December with Chennaiyin and Bengaluru FC its opponents in consecutive games.

"This is what you want to look forward to. To play in the big games. We know we are up against a very good outfit (Chennaiyin) and they have a good manager who has got them play to their strengths. So, we will be hoping to put up a good performance."

Meulesteen will not have a full squad at his disposal, with the biggest loss being star man Dimitar Berbatov. "Berbatov is still recovering from a calf injury so he is a doubt. We also just had an incident with Pritam Singh in training where he dislocated his shoulder."

Meulensteen acknowledged the quality of his team’s opponent. "There is good consistency with their back four and keeper. They are in the top three for a reason. They have good goal scoring attributes from open play and are a threat from set-pieces too. So, we are hoping the win from the last week will give us enough boost to again put in a positive performance and get a good result," he said.

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