Josep Gombau — in his final season as Odisha FC head coach in 2020 — had missed the playoffs by four points.
On his return to the club two years later, the Spaniard will look to turn his fortunes around with just a few games left, as his side faces Chennaiyin FC at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Thursday.
Odisha sits seventh in the table, five points ahead of Chennaiyin and — under the new playoff rules — has a more realistic chance to make it to the knockouts from here. “Now is the moment when it’s all or nothing in the season. We have five games to go, which means tomorrow if we win, we are in the top six,” Gombau said.
“It’s true that last week we did not get the results (that we wanted), but it’s not that the team is not working hard or playing well. I see the boys with a lot of hunger and that is what we will bring to every single game.”
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Chennaiyin FC last won a home game in November 2022, and is winless in its last six games.
Succeeding Bozidar Bandovic as CFC head coach, Thomas Brdaric offered some hope in October 2022, with a win over ATK Mohun Bagan. But the road since has been an uphill one. Bandovic was sacked after his seventh loss in 16 games. Brdaric has six in 15.
The Odisha clash may just be Brdaric’s biggest test in the league so far. “It will be tough (against Odisha FC), but if you see their previous opponent, especially the last match, ATK Mohun Bagan showed very good pressing. They did not allow Odisha to create chances and we will have the same approach — high-intensity football to reduce the gaps for Odisha to exploit,” Brdaric said.
Both teams come into the match on the back of losses — to Bengaluru FC and ATK Mohun Bagan, respectively. For Odisha, Diego Mauricio, with eight goals and four assists in 15 games, will lead the attack behind Saul Crespo while Chennaiyin will have Petar Sliskovic and Abdenasser El Khayati in its arsenal.
Sliskovic is the club’s highest goalscorer this season and El Khayati, after recovering from a hamstring injury, has been the architect of attacks from the midfield, with seven goals and four assists in eight matches this season.
CFC, however, will rue the absence of Ajith Kumar — Brdaric’s preferred right-back this season — who is suspended, while the remaining squad is available, as confirmed by the German coach. Odisha and Chennaiyin have met seven times in the past and the Marina Machans have been victorious just once, in December 2021, with the initial clash between the sides this season ending in favour of OFC.
When Chennaiyin hosts the Juggernauts this time, Brdaric’s job, three crucial points and an opportunity to deny Odisha a league double will all be at stake.
For Odisha, on the other hand, it will be a chance to have an advantage for playoff spots — something it has not been able to achieve since its rebranding, four years ago.