John Gregory: 'We want to be the ones that everybody is trying to beat'

The Chennaiyin FC manager admits there will be added pressure for the defending champion this season, and is keen to "return and retain the title."

John Gregory...“The boys, including myself, have come back because we want to retain the title.”   -  M. Vedhan

No team has ever successfully defended its Indian Super League crown in the four-year history of the competition. Two-time winner Chennaiyin FC will attempt to do so when the new campaign kicks off next month.

The Chennai-based club’s title-winning manager John Gregory, who arrived in the city earlier this week, is excited about the prospect of making it back-to-back triumphs.

"Nine of the 10 teams will be looking to try and beat the champion," Gregory told Sportstar here on Saturday prior to the team's departure for Kuala Lumpur for its pre-season camp. "I think everybody will step up their game when they play us. It will be similar to last year since we never dropped out of the top four so we were always the target for the other teams. There will be added pressure this year with us being the champion."

The team's overseas players played a pivotal role in its second triumph in three years. The management was quick to tie down the services of four of its five starters from last season's ISL final — Inigo Calderon, Mailson Alves, Gregory Nelson and Raphael Augusto. However, it remains to be seen whether skipper Henrique Sereno returns to the team this year.

Gearing up for title defence

"The boys, including myself, have come back because we want to retain the title. We’ve all come back because we want to be the ones that everybody is trying to beat. We want to be the ones that can return and retain the title," Gregory said.

Gregory, having secured the signature of Spanish midfielder Andrea Orlandi earlier in the week, expects to fill up his two remaining foreign player slots in the coming days.

With India participating in next year's AFC Asian Cup, the league will be interrupted on three separate occasions, including a month-long break in January. However, the Englishman is not fazed. "We will deal with that. We are professional enough. We will probably enjoy it. There was a period of 10 days last season and we used it well. Four or five of my boys went on a break to Sri Lanka to relax. It was great for them. One or two of my domestic boys went home. They came back fresh and were ready to go again," the 64-year-old said.

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On choosing Kuala Lumpur as its pre-season destination, Gregory explained, "We looked at the quality of the opposition which will be good. Last year (in Thailand), some of the matches weren't as good as we expected it to be. We as a team are a lot more organised than we were 12 months ago."

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Gregory is optimistic of having his Indian core — Anirudh Thapa, Jerry Lalrinzuala, Germanpreet Singh and Isaac Vanmalsawmaa, who are all away at the SAFF preparatory camp — to be back injury-free and in readiness for the new season.

"They are playing and training. I have been in touch with all of them and I will be contacting them again in another couple of weeks. We need to manage them well. It's part of football where we get these situations. We are not the only teams who have their players away. It's just that all four of our boys are very close to our first team, so we will be desperate to get them back in one piece. And hopefully, they will come back fresh and ready to go once again," he said.

Fixture congestion

Chennaiyin will get its first taste of continental football when it competes in the preliminary stages of the AFC Cup next year.

Gregory was in no mood to make excuses on account of fixture congestion in the second half of the season. "I don't think it will be a problem. Last season, we played five (matches) in 17 days and we just got on with it. We will need to adjust accordingly. The players were really adaptable. They really picked up what we were trying to transfer to them. We have to do whatever the ISL says. We can't complain about it and use that as an excuse."

He added, "This season, it's going to happen at various times. When we get a break, we need to use that to our advantage and maybe it gives an opportunity to rest one or two and step up the fitness of the others who are not playing on a regular basis."

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