With ISL hopes over, Chennaiyin looks for AFC Cup comfort 

After an eighth defeat in 11 Indian Super League matches, Chennaiyin FC's hopes of qualifying for the play-offs are realistically over.

Chennaiyin playes Anirudh Thapa and Eli Sabia (L) react after its loss to Mumbai City FC.   -  ISL/SPORTZPICS

Chennaiyin FC’s collapse in this edition of the Indian Super League has been nothing short of spectacular. A side that knew how to grind out results and defeated the mighty Bengaluru FC in its own den to win the ISL title last season, now seems to have forgotten that art.

Its 0-2 reverse against Mumbai City FC on Thursday was its eighth loss in 11 games. For those who followed the side last season, this is a stunning collapse, and it is unlikely that it will make it to the play-offs, forget about defending the title.

Chennaiyin has five points, and even if it miraculously win all remaining seven games, it will climb to a maximum of 26 points. If you consider that the fourth-placed team last year had 30 points, the play-off dreams do not look like turning into reality.

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“I feel huge disappointment for everybody associated with the club. I carry hurt and disappointment, rather than pressure. It hurts me the worst. That’s how I feel. Having had the amazing 12 months, I had prior to September this year, it hurts me the most. But that’s what comes with the job,” said coach John Gregory.

Misfiring stars

Just like the fans, Gregory must have been left wondering how his team does not seem to get anything right. The team has underperformed collectively this year and look a mere shadow of the defensively resolute outfit which opponents found hard to crack last year. The 21 goals it conceded points to a bigger malaise and the form of some stars, including striker Jeje Lalpekhlua, is a huge cause for concern.

Jeje, Chennaiyin's top-scorer last season with nine strikes, is yet to register a goal in the 2018-19 season. PHOTO: ISL/SPORTZPICS

So, what next for Chennaiyin after surrendering its title at the halfway stage? All is not over for the defending champion; its exploits last season earned it a place in the AFC Cup, Asia’s continental club competition, and there should be enough motivation to get some wins under it belt and improve morale.

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“The AFC Cup becomes the focus if ISL goes out of focus. By the end of this month, we will have a really good idea of whether our play-off hopes are completely over. It is a huge ask for us to catch-up. You’re praying for a miracle here,” said Gregory.

Plenty to play for

Miracles do not happen just like that. Given Chennaiyin’s poor form all through the season, it has left too much to do in the end, and even if it starts winning, it’s incomprehensible that they will win seven in a row.

Between now and early next year when the AFC Cup kicks off, Gregory will have time to utilise the winter break in the ISL and the January transfer window to plug the holes. There is still plenty left to play for this season.