Pune: Last season, Chennaiyin FC and FC Pune City conceded the least goals in the Indian Super League (ISL) behind leaders Bengaluru FC.
And when the two struggling sides met at the Balewadi Stadium on Tuesday, the outcome was a complete contrast - an enthralling goal-fest as the defending champions marched towards their first win of the ISL 2018-19 campaign.
After trailing 1-0 in the first half, four goals after the lemon break saw the Marina Machans stage an incredible upset and continue their unbeaten run against the Orange Army.
Chennaiyin deployed a high defensive line and the risk was evident after Robin exposed the chinks in their armour with a long cross-field pass to Aashique Kuruniyan on the left who made no mistake to slot it home, finding way past the weary legs of Karanjiat Singh for his maiden ISL goal.
The visitors, however, did not sit back and applied pressure, trying to penetrate Pune City’s compact defense as they gobbled a major chunk of possession.
Francisco Fernandes was a livewire on the right flank and along with the experienced Inigo Calderon, pinged in crosses that failed to reach the desired target as the centre-back pairing of Matt Mills and captain Gurtej Singh marshalled the defence with authority.
The fact that Gregory’s men got their first shot on target in the 43rd minute highlighted the success of Pradyum Reddy’s tactical setup. The Stallions were more than happy to surrender possession and break on the counter. After blocking the inward passage of play, they got bodies behind the ball even when the two-time winners made use of the width.
But Chennaiyin’s Samba flavour inspired two goals in the second-half and they were back, breathing down Pune‘s neck. Who other than the captain can set the best example? After Anirudh Thapa floated a cross from a free-kick at the far post, Gregory Nelson glanced high and towered it past the diving Kamaljit Singh to settle scores in the 54th minute.
Two minutes later, the Brazilian defender fired a sumptuous long ball to Gregory Nelson on the counter, who chipped it over the onrushing Kamaljit Singh. The tables had turned. Chennaiyin were leading. Reddy seemed clueless on the touchline as his defense capitulated and Gregory besides him was roaring.
“Our defence was very compact and difficult to break down and we were also creating chances. That enabled us to go with a one-goal lead at half-time, similar to the Goa game. But as you could see in the second half, there were a few concentration errors, fatigue, lack of concentration during the first two goals. We lacked a leader who could calm things down and protect the lead. Twenty minutes of madness and we lost the game,” Reddy said the post-match presser.
The drama wasn’t over yet. Following a deflection from a Thapa corner, Inigo Calderon piled misery with an acrobatic overhead kick that kissed the inside of the post before making its way into the back of the net during the 69th minute. Three minutes later, substitute Thoi Singh joined the party with a tap in from close range after the ball ricocheted off Jeje Lalpekhlua’s blocked shot.
"The players never lost their desire or professionalism. Even after we went 1-0 down, we continued playing. The confidence has been severely damaged in some of the games but they continued to work hard.
"We knew that if we continued with the way we were playing, eventually the results would turn our way. The players lacked a bit of self-belief after all the poor results. But I had belief in them. We need to keep working hard and never give up. Hopefully, this is the start of many good things to come," Gregory explained.
Jonathan Vila grabbed a consolation goal in stoppage time but by then the damage had already been done. It couldn’t have got any worse for Pune after a reckless challenge on Germanpreet Singh witnessed Marcelinho being given his marching orders.