Whisper it... but Chennaiyin FC (CFC) has been among the best teams on show in the Indian Super League (ISL) this season. However, the points table at the halfway stage will suggest otherwise. Chennaiyin is eighth on the table with 11 points from 10 matches and is winless in its last four. It averages 50 per cent possession per game, most touches in the opposition box (223) and has had 108 shots (3rd best) overall but with a conversion rate of under 6% (11th). It is also the only team yet to hit double figures in the goals scored column.
To make a defence for the two-time ISL champion, it has the third-best defensive record, behind the top two sides, Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan. It has one of the best tactical operators in head coach Csaba Laszlo, who could have had convincing victories over Mumbai City and ATKMB, if it weren't for poor finishing from his players. In all of Chennaiyin's matches, only Hyderabad FC could claim to have outplayed it in a 4-1 win last week.
That defeat against Hyderabad stung Chennaiyin hard. As the final whistle was blown, Eli Sabia huddled in the team together on the pitch as Enes Sipovic issued a team talk, with the opposition players looking on.
Most of Chennaiyin’s troubles have been its own doing. The forwards have squandered from some promising goal-scoring positions. The kind of misses that make you go ‘How?’. Even the Expected Goals (xG) metric, which is used to determine the quality of the chances created, would be confounded by how the forwards have underperformed in front of goal.
Lallianzuala Chhangte and Jakub Sylvestr, in particular, have failed to convert most of the chances that have come their way. According to Opta , the duo feature in the top five list of players with most touches in the opposition box (89 combined) but have missed six (Sylvestr) and four (Chhangte) big chances this season. Sylvestr’s only goal came from a simple tap-in and his goal conversion rate is the second-worst in the league.
Chennaiyin has the worst differential (-7.75) in expected goals (xG) this season with the team scoring just eight goals while being expected to score 15.75 goals at the end of the halfway stage. The team has been involved in four goalless draws this season. Draws which taste like defeats.
The stalemate against Odisha FC on Sunday, where it failed to take its many chances after sustained spells of domination, was the latest in a long list of inexplicable results for the head coach Csaba Laszlo.
“I cannot explain this...,” said the exasperated Romanian, on if the lack of goals was down to bad luck or poor application. “You must push the ball into the net! From the start of the season, we are creating the most chances. These kind of chances, you cannot miss. This was a game where the 3 points were in the pocket. You just had to take it.”
Another alarming concern for Chennaiyin has been the drop in quality in its attack and the limitations within the squad, in the absence of the injured Rafael Crivellaro. Now, Chennaiyin is two games into the post-Crivellaro stage with Laszlo redrawing his tactics board without his talisman in the picture. “My staff and I have reorganised the team completely knowing that Rafa is out. We had to find a new shape and tactic. I am proud of the team because they understand [what I want] quickly,” said Laszlo.
To fill the Crivellaro shaped hole in that starting XI, Chennaiyin has earmarked Manuel Lanzarote, formerly of FC Goa and ATK. The 36-year-old attacking midfielder, who was most recently plying his trade in the Spanish fourth division, will likely be available only for the last six matches of the league campaign. While he last played on December 13, it would still be a big ask of Lanzarote to strike the chord with his teammates from the off. While teams around them have had their overseas players make meaningful contributions in attack, Chennaiyin’s four foreign attackers have combined to score just three goals. And when compared with its last season, its three overseas attackers scored 27 of its 36 goals. Nerijus Valskis, CFC's top-scorer last season, has scored as many goals as Chennaiyin for his new club Jamshedpur FC this season.
CFC has the reputation for turning dire situations around in the second half of a season, although it is considerably in a better position this time around. In what has been a tight midd-table battle, CFC is just four points away from breaching the top four again. Having missed the opportunity to climb up the table on Sunday, Chennaiyin has another crack at Odisha in two days time to ensure it doesn’t have another mountain to climb.
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