Chennaiyin FC stand on the cusp of something special ahead of their AFC Cup clash against Minerva Punjab in Guwahati -- if they win their last two remaining group games of the continental competition starting Wednesday, they will become the first Indian Super League (ISL) champions to advance to the AFC Cup knockout stages.
Level on points with Dhaka Abahani of Bangladesh, Chennaiyin can even ensure a group win should they pick up three points and Abahani lose their home game against Manang Marshyangdi of Nepal.
"It's a huge game for us. Probably the biggest ever -- it matches the [2017-18] ISL final, because there is a lot at stake," says coach John Gregory, who would have been out of the Chennaiyin job but for two wins and a draw to start their AFC Cup campaign. As things stand, his club offered him a one-year extension in May, and with two away goals scored in a 3-2 defeat to Abahani, Chennaiyin occupy top spot in Group E, where only the winner will go through to the knockouts, something achieved by Bengaluru FC in both 2017 and 2018.
"It's slightly unusual, because it's played through the summer, when normally everybody is on holiday," says former Aston Villa manager Gregory of how his team have coped with relentless football since last September. "The players have to remain focused and keep training, when everybody else is taking to the beach. But we're enjoying that we're involved in this, and proud that we're representing not just the city, but also India."
The unusual nature of this AFC Cup extends beyond the timing -- Chennaiyin had to move out of their home city because their playoff round opponents were Sri Lankan club Colombo FC. "For someone like me, it was like if you were coach of Southampton, and you had to play three home games in Newcastle at the other end of the country," says Gregory, of being forced to open their AFC Cup campaign with successive home games in Ahmedabad. "It was a long, long way away from our fans, but we managed to do quite well, and that has put us in a good position in the league."
The upturn in form with the AFC Cup coincided with the latter rounds of the Super Cup, where Chennaiyin made it to the final, where they lost 2-1 to FC Goa. The wins along the way, says Gregory, helped lift the morale of a team that finished bottom of the ISL. Importantly, players like Jeje Lalpekhlua, Anirudh Thapa, Mailson Alves, Raphael Augusto, and CK Vineeth (who is on loan then from Kerala Blasters), got some goals, something they missed during the ISL.
"CK is good to work with. We've got the opportunity to offer him a new deal for next year," says Gregory. "Other than that, we've not really changed too many of our personnel -- Karanjit [Singh] in goal, Mailson, Augusto, Francis Fernandes, Thoi Singh are still churning out performances."
Thapa comes in for special mention from the coach. "When you are 18-19, you have to improve year after year, and he has done that. It was evident in the last international [a 1-0 win against Thailand in the King's Cup] when he scored the winner and had an outstanding match. New coach Igor Stimac was very impressed with the way he performed."
Minerva Punjab, says Gregory, gave Chennaiyin their toughest game of four. "They won the I-League, which takes some doing. They work really hard, and have possibly not got the results for their performances," he says of the only unbeaten team in the group, who still have a mathematical chance of winning the group, with four points from four matches.
Minerva's 1-1 draw away to Manang featured a goal by 16-year-old central defender Thoiba Singh. "To be honest, the first game against Minerva was probably the best team performance. We defended particularly well, but we couldn't score. The game finished 0-0, but we did play very well and I was pleased with the way we played."
"It's difficult playing away from home. For a lot of the boys, this is their first real experience of playing in a competition as strong as this, with so much at stake," says Gregory, agreeing that his contract extension gives him something to look forward to beyond just the next two games. "Whatever the outcome, I'm going to be still at the club. I've had the two extremes of being the champion and finishing last, and I know which one I prefer."
"We have the ability in the squad to win the next two matches. It'll be a huge achievement for our club if we manage to get through to the next round."