Chennaiyin FC secured their first-ever win in the ISL against NorthEast United, as Italian striker Davide Succi's stunning volley in the second half lifted the defending champions up to third in the table after a hard-fought 1-0 victory.
Chennaiyin's head coach Marco Materazzi has switched and shuffled his pack all season, and on Thursday night, he gave Italian forward Maurizio Peluso his first start; Dudu Omagbemi and Jeje Lalpekhlua were once again left on the bench.
The first 45 minutes were played out at a pedestrian's pace, with neither midfield able to overpower the other. Against Goa last week, a tactical misfire from Zico had afforded Hans Mulder and Raphael Augusto both the time and space to run the game. However, NorthEast were far more disciplined at the centre, with Rowlin Borges and Romaric closing out the channels available for Chennaiyin's attackers.
Chennaiyin once again played the 4-1-2-1-2 diamond, but their Italian strike-duo of Succi and Peluso had neither the pace nor the guile to get behind a NorthEast defence expertly marshalled by Didier Zokora.
Chances were few and far between for either team, with NorthEast more than happy to cede possession and wait for the right moment to break. Their 4-1-4-1 meant that they always had numbers at the back, and whenever Augusto or Mulder was in possession of the ball, they were immediately crowded by three NorthEast shirts.
Chennaiyin came the closest with Peluso testing Subrata Pal on a couple of occasions. Subrata made a mess of the first one in the 30th minute, spilling a 40-yard free-kick from Peluso, but luckily for the keeper, Mulder failed to convert the rebound with a free header. Subrata was called into action again soon after when Peluso cut in from the left and let one fly towards the top-right corner, but this time Subrata did well to tip the ball over.
At the other end, Chennaiyin and Karanjit Singh were hardly troubled, as Nicolas Velez and Emiliano Alfaro were completely isolated up front. NorthEast, instead, kept the battles to the middle of the park, with rash tackles flying in from both teams. The game descended into a scrap, and a fired-up Zokora had to be restrained by his team-mates after getting into a number of heated exchanges with his opponents.
It was evident that the deadlock would be broken only by a moment of magic or lunacy. Succi provided that spark early in the second half.
In the 50th minute, Siam Hanghal whipped in a cross from the right towards the box. The ball arrived slightly behind Succi, who had only a second to adjust his position. Succi improvised, using his left leg to lift off the ground, and the right to hit a sweet volley past Subrata. There was not even any backlift. The technique was sublime, the execution, outrageous.
Chennaiyin, having pocketed their first-ever goal in Guwahati, however chose to sit back and protect their lead, inviting wave after wave after wave of NorthEast attacks.
The hosts, jolted into action by that goal, swarmed forward in numbers, and bombarded Karanjit with several threatening crosses and set-pieces, but the Chennaiyin goalkeeper had everything covered. He kept out a Romaric free-kick, collected high balls, palmed away inswingers, and kept bellowing instructions to his two centre backs. NorthEast were not helped by poor finishing, as Sumeet Passy and Alfaro both failed to make the most of free headers; the latter was in the 90th minute of the game.
It helped that Chennaiyin's centre-halves Mendy and Eli Sabia were also on point throughout the match. In the 67th minute, NorthEast appeared to have found an equalizer when Alfaro was played through on goal and pulled the trigger, only to be stopped by a last-ditch, inch-perfect sliding challenge from Mendy. Had the tackle been a second too late, Alfaro would have scored. Had it been a second too early, Mendy would have been sent off after conceding a penalty.
The scorecard will show that the match was won by a goal from an Italian striker. What it does not reveal, though, was that Chennaiyin got over the line by some tough and stellar defending, which, too, had a very Italian flavor to it.