“A lot has changed,” says Chennaiyin FC (CFC) skipper Anirudh Thapa ahead of the club’s homecoming at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium against Bengaluru FC on Friday. “The crowd, the traffic, the hotel, and obviously, the players and the staff.”
Thapa, one of the two players left from CFC’s 2019-20 squad, is hopeful that the fever pitch support will continue from two years back.
The 24-year-old midfielder, who is into his seventh season with the club, fondly remembers the evening of February 29, 2020. “It’s a good feeling to be finally back in Chennai. The last memory I have is the game vs Goa [semifinal 1st leg]. The atmosphere was electrifying,” he recollects. In front of a packed arena, Thapa scored a stunning goal in a 4-1 win, which encapsulated CFC’s miraculous mid-season revival but ultimately fell short in the final.
The club has undergone a sea of changes since then. Chennaiyin has had three head coach in two years and has made a near-complete overhaul in the playing staff. After a sombre two seasons inside a bio-bubble in Goa, where the club finished eighth in successive seasons, the two-time champion will be buoyed to be back in front of its home fans.
Under new head coach Thomas Brdaric, Chennaiyin reached the quarterfinals of the Durand Cup. Ahead of the ISL, it severed ties with midfielder Rafael Crivellaro, whose appearances have been limited in the last two years due to injuries. CFC won its ISL season opener away to ATK Mohun Bagan, where it looked out of sorts for the first half before stealing all three points in a comeback 2-1 win.
Thomas Brdaric’s side lacked a distinct pattern of play but produced better composure on the ball in the second half. Rahim Ali, 22, who scored the match-winner, has blown cold for much of his time since his signing in 2020 and will be expected to burden the goal-scoring duties this season.
Brdaric noted Bengaluru’s ‘fast players’ and cautioned that “especially at the back, they are not able to overplay us easily. We have to defend as a team and not let them fulfil their strengths at our stadium.”
The versatile Edwin Vanspaul, the other remaining member from 2020, came on to provide cover for right-back Ajith Kumar and would have made his case for a starting place against Bengaluru. BFC’s pace up top with strikers Sivasakthi Narayanan and Roy Krishna against CFC’s defence will be a key match-up.
Bengaluru also possesses set piece threat from Alan Costa, Bruno Ramires and Prince Ibarra, who will look to get on the end of crosses from full-backs Roshan Naorem and Prabir Das..
I know the spark should jump from the field to the stands, but also through the fans’ support, the spark can also jump from the stands to the pitch when the team needs you. That’s why we should stick together.
— Chennaiyin FC head coach Thomas Brdaric
Simon Grayson’s BFC eked out a 1-0 win against NorthEast United and was troubled by the individual brilliance of Romain Philippoteaux and Jon Gaztanaga. Chennaiyin will hope new signing Nasser El Khayati is up to speed and can similarly hurt the away side.
While Brdaric isn’t playing up his team’s chances this season, an upset result against arch-rival Bengaluru will certainly bring belief to the supporters and build momentum in a new cycle.
“I know the spark should jump from the field to the stands, but also through the fans’ support, the spark can also jump from the stands to the pitch when the team needs you. That’s why we should stick together,” said the German.