Chennaiyin FC's dark horse: Gregory Nelson

Gregory Nelson's work-rate and technical quality shone throughout ISL 4 but most importantly, he delivered the goods whenever his team was most in need of inspiration.

Gregory Nelson had a memorable debut season with the eventual ISL 2017-18 champion, Chennaiyin FC.   -  R. Ragu

"I was a little bit disappointed when I didn't start the first game," was his remark when Sportstar spoke to him at the beginning of the season. From being peeved for being left out of the starting XI for the first game, to crafting two exceptional assists in the final and guiding Chennaiyin FC to its second Indian Super League title, Dutch winger Gregory Nelson has had a splendid season.

Nelson, who made his debut under Louis Van Gaal at Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar in 2007, made the leap to join Chennaiyin after snubbing many an offer from European clubs. And now, after playing a pivotal role in his side's title-clinching run in his debut season, Nelson is a happy man. "It has been an amazing season. We are the champions and it feels great. We worked hard for six months to get here and I’m glad we’ve achieved it," he says.

Read: 'I use Indian players to their strengths'

"I felt I could have helped more during the season, but I'm glad I finally came out in the final," he adds in his next breath.

But that's just Nelson being modest. The 30-year-old was always a key component of coach John Gregory's title-winning side and was a constant threat on the left wing.

Despite coming off the bench, Nelson made an impact in Chennaiyin's first home game against FC Goa. He was introduced at the start of the second half with the home side trailing 0-3. His dribbling ability and slick passing helped Chennaiyin score two late goals and come within sniffing distance of a draw.

He once again revelled in Chennaiyin's 1-0 win over FC Pune City at home, where he scored the winner and his only goal of the campaign. The win proved to be crucial in the side's qualification for the playoffs.

All-round performance

Nelson not only prowled the flank with his venomous attacks but also provided defensive support, tracking back, making tough tackles and proving himself a complete team player. 

However, the one aspect that remained constant throughout his campaign was his high work-rate and sublime level of fitness. Nelson featured in all the games leading to the title, barring one, which he sat out due to suspension for an accumulation of cards.

Purple patch

Nelson found his purple patch just when the side needed him the most – at the start of the ISL playoffs. With his side trailing 0-1 in the first leg of the semifinal clash against FC Goa at the Fatorda Stadium, the Dutchman dodged past three defenders and played an inch-perfect throughball to Anirudh Thapa, who converted and helped his side gain a crucial away goal.

In the return leg, Nelson was once again in the thick of things as he delivered a delightful cross for Jeje Lalpekhlua to convert and then delivered a curling free-kick from the left for Dhanapal Ganesh to score as Chennaiyin went on to win the game 3-0 and progress to the final, where it faced the mighty Bengaluru FC.

It’s astounding to note that all of Nelson’s five assists came in Chennaiyin’s last three games, right when it mattered the most. Nelson had created five of Chennaiyin's last seven goals.

Memorable final

On the night of the final, Chennaiyin FC fell 1-0 behind as early as the ninth minute, but it was Nelson who rose to the occasion and turned the tide in his side's favour. He whipped in a delicious corner from the left for Mailson Alves to head and get the tie back on level terms. As fate would have it, it was the same duo that combined again to give Chennaiyin the all-important lead. Nelson delivered a pinpoint cross from the right and Alves, once again, scored a towering header to take a 2-1 lead and Chennaiyin went on to win the summit clash 3-1.    

Read: Alves brace helps Chennaiyin FC clinches second title

Super Cup on the cards

When asked if he will look to continue his fine form and guide Chennaiyin to a Super Cup title, he replies with a disarming smile, "One more trophy will be nice. We want to win everything!" Having recently signed a one-year contract extension with the side, Gregory Nelson is certainly one name you'd want to look out for in Chennaiyin's title-defence later this year.

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