Winless, Chennaiyin FC looks for home comfort against the Highlanders

Chennaiyin FC’s overseas striker Carlos Salom is likely to get a look in ahead of a misfiring Jeje Lalpekhlua. NorthEast United FC’s first-choice keeper TP Rehnesh was handed a one-match suspension on Wednesday and will miss tomorrow’s game.

Chennaiyin FC players attend a practice session at the SRMC Ground in Chennai on Wednesday.   -  M. Vedhan

“Everybody is talking about us in a negative way and it’s not enjoyable," Chennaiyin FC John Gregory said.

The Englishman is keen to shut out all the criticism surrounding his team and wants his players to feel relaxed ahead of the Indian Super League game against NorthEast United FC here on Thursday.

Despite the difficult start to the title defence — zero points in two matches against Bengaluru FC and FC Goa — Gregory insists that his players have trained well during the international break and isn't keen on making knee-jerk reactions. “We faced obstacles last season but we ignored them and got on with it," he said.

Chennaiyin has struggled at both ends of the field thus far and much of the focus has been on the misfiring striker Jeje Lalpekhlua, who has failed to register a single shot on target in nearly 160 minutes of football.

"I am ready to sacrifice anyone to make sure the team improves. I can only have five overseas boys in the XI. The sacrifices I make will not reflect on their performances. There's always a chance that I might have to do it from the start tomorrow." — John Gregory, Chennaiyin FC coach

Overseas striker Carlos Salom, who looked sharp in the 3-1 defeat to Goa, is likely to get a look in ahead of Jeje tomorrow. The league regulation which allows only five foreigners in the playing XI means it won't be a like-for-like change.

In the recent past, Gregory has shown that he doesn't like to tamper with his backline. Against NorthEast, he might have to split up the back four (Inigo Calderon, Mailson Alves, Eli Sabia and Jerry Lalrinzuala) or leave out one of his influential attackers (Gregory Nelson and Raphael Augusto) to accommodate Salom.

"I am ready to sacrifice anyone to make sure the team improves," said Gregory. "I can only have five overseas boys in the XI. The sacrifices I make will not reflect on their performances. There's always a chance that I might have to do it from the start tomorrow."

Ominous signs at NorthEast United

NorthEast is coming into this fixture in a confident mood after collecting four points with a draw against Goa and a win against ATK. Dutchman Eelco Schattorie, who has prior experience of coaching in India, took up the position of the head coach only a month before the season kicked off.

Schattorie is keen on getting his team to play an attacking brand of football focusing on possession and defensive organisation.

Having scored a league low of just 12 goals in the previous season, NorthEast has started on the front foot with striker Bartholomew Ogbeche looking ominous.

“Chennaiyin is like a cornered dog. They might attack or they might be more scared. They have a few good individual players that can make a difference. If they have a good day, it will be difficult for us.” Eelco Schattorie, NorthEast United FC coach

The Nigerian has made his presence felt with his pace and power. Coming to ISL after a stint with Dutch club Eredivisie, he has taken seven shots out of the Highlanders’ 11 shots on goal while converting one against the Gaurs.

“In my opinion, we didn't play really strong games. A lot of the time has to be spent on defensive organisation and team dynamics. I think that can take you a long way," explained Schattorie.

On the opposition, Schattorie noted, "Chennaiyin is like a cornered dog. They might attack or they might be more scared. They have a few good individual players that can make a difference. If they have a good day, it will be difficult for us.

"We need to be prepared and be organised as we did against Goa. We focused on being organised in pre-season. We can compete with any ISL team. They have a few weaknesses and hopefully, we can exploit that."

However, on the eve of the match, Schattorie received the news of first-choice goalkeeper TP Rehnesh's suspension for his altercation with ATK's Gerson Vieria. The head coach now finds himself in a position to thrust Pawan Kumar, who hasn't had much game time in previous seasons or the untested 18-year-old Gurmeet to man the goalpost.