ISL 2020-21 news, Chennaiyin FC preview: Slow starter needs to hit right chord early

ISL 2020: Chennaiyin FC has replaced five of its seven overseas players, and its Indian contingent will need to come up to speed swiftly if it is to avoid playing catchup with the competition as it has in most of the ISL seasons it has played.

Chennaiyin FC

Chennaiyin FC's foreign players go through their paces during their pre-season training. The club retained only two of its foreigners for ISL 2020-21, Rafael Crivellaro (R) and Eli Sabia (not in picture).   -  Twitter @ChennaiyinFC

Much like the previous seasons, two-time Indian Super League (ISL 2020-21) champion Chennaiyin FC starts the new campaign as a dark horse. A mid-season managerial change last season played its part in turning around a dismal start as the club finished as the runner-up.

Chennaiyin couldn’t retain the services of head coach Owen Coyle and replaced him with Romanian Csaba Laszlo, who is coaching in Asia for the first time.

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The club was a slow mover in the transfer market with its overseas signings and is the only one in the ISL not to have a Spaniard or Australian national in its squad.

Instead, Chennaiyin has struck with its tried-and-tested approach of signing mid-tier but proven Brazilian and East European players. With the competition getting stronger over the off-season, a tilt at the title may be beyond Chennaiyin’s reach, but the squad has the know-how to get itself into the mix.


Chennaiyin FC has a vibrant and a talented domestic core in Anirudh Thapa (22 years old), Lallianzuala Chhangte (23), Jerry Lalrinzuala (22), Edwin Sydney Vanspaul (28), Vishal Kaith (24), Germanpreet Singh (24), who are coming off last season’s strong run to the final.


Anirudh Thapa is one of Chennaiyin FC's star players, having played 55 ISL matches in his four seasons with the club.   -  ISL/Sportzpics


The club has added experience in the form of left-back Lalchhuanmawia and right-back Reagan Singh.

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Thapa’s form and the goal threat from the wings by Chhangte are integral to Chennaiyin’s chances this season.


Barring the 2014 and 2017-18 seasons, Chennaiyin has been perennially slow starter in the ISL. The club has replaced five of its seven overseas players and hence will need to hit the chord with the Indian contingent swifty if it is to avoid playing catchup with the competition.

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The club faced further complications in pre-season training, with the majority of its foreign contingent and new head coach Csaba Laszlo getting out of their mandatory quarantine periods only on November 10 – a mere 10 days before the new season commenced. The club also lost its first two pre-season friendlies.

Eli Sabia has made 59 appearances for Chennaiyin FC in all competitions so far.   -  Special Arrangement


“With all respect to Mohsni, I want to kill him. Honestly, I want to kill him,” an irate Laszlo said in 2018 of the Dundee United debutant after he lost out on a one-on-one duel that led to the concession of a goal.

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The Romanian wanted the defender to tap into his “nasty” edge to play for his team. Laszlo is inheriting a squad that had plenty of bright spots in attack last season. But much of its malignancy had to do with errors in defence that were punished dearly.

Chennaiyin FC coach Csaba Laszlo is inheriting a squad that had plenty of bright spots in attack last season.   -  Special Arrangement


Laszlo, who comes with European club and international football experience, appears to be the right candidate to help iron out those flaws.

Listen to our season preview on our ISL-special podcast - The Full Time Show



Laszlo has picked playmaker Crivellaro as his skipper for the new season. The 31-year-old was a leader in Chennaiyin's attack, often driving the ball from deeper areas to fashion chances for the strikers. He scored seven and set up eight goals from 20 appearances. Off the pitch, too, Crivellaro is considered to be an energetic presence amongst the group.

Sabia and Thapa were named the deputies to the Brazilian.

Rafael Crivellaro scored seven times in 20 matches last season.   -  ISL/Sportzpics


Foreign contingent

Brazilians Eli Sabia (centre-back) and Rafael Crivellaro (attacking midfielder) were the only overseas players retained from last season. Crivellaro was Chennaiyin’s prolific creative outlet with eight assists while scoring eight goals himself. Their countryman Memo Moura, who has four years of ISL experience, provides versatility as a defensive midfielder and centre-back.

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Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Enes Sipovic (centre-back), Slovakia's Jakub Sylvester (forward), Tajikistan’s Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev (winger) and Guinea-Bissau’s Esmael Goncalves (striker) all come in with Asian football pedigree.

Best new pick

Esmael Goncalves, 29, has an impressive CV having played in Ligue 1, the Scottish Premiership, the UEFA Europa League and the J1 League in Japan. The 6’1” forward’s strongest suits are his physical strength, pace and eye for goal.


He has the unenviable task of replacing Nerijus Valskis, who scored 15 goals for the club last season and won the Golden Boot.

Best possible formation

Chennaiyin, in recent seasons, has deployed the 4-2-3-1 formation to provide balance to its attack and defence. Last season, after Owen Coyle took charge, two box-to-box midfielders were used in the midfield pivot instead of a defensive-minded midfielder.

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With the profile of players at Laszlo’s disposal and his preference in using this shape in his previous coaching roles, the two-time champion will likely stick to 4-2-3-1.