Chennai City FC had scripted history by winning the title in just their third season at the top tier….
Chennai City FC had entered the I-League in the 2016-17 season through corporate entry along with Minerva Punjab after Goan clubs Dempo SC, Salgaocar FC and Sporting Clube de Goa decided to pull out of the competition due to lack of clarity with the roadmap of Indian football.
The first two years proved to be tough for the Southern outfit as they finished on the eighth position on both occasions and were struggling to cope with the competitiveness of the top tier.
But the Rohit Ramesh-owned side did not lose heart after two disappointing campaigns and instead focused on proper planning to build a team in the third year where they went on to script a fairytale.
The process started with the hiring of Singaporean coach Akbar Nawaz who had previously served as an assistant coach at Singaporean giants Tampines Rovers. Along with Nawaz, they brought in Spaniard Jordi Villa who had previously served as a chief scout at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola.
While Nawaz focused on tapping the best local talents, Villa was in charge of recruiting the foreign contingent. The Spaniard raided his native country and brought three Segunda ‘B’ players in Sandro Rodriguez, Nestor Gordillo and Pedro Manzi.
The Singaporean head coach put together a solid squad with a mixture of talented youngsters and quality foreign players. Under Nawaz’s tutelage, local talents like Alexander Jesuraj Romario, Michael Regin, Edwin Vanspaul, Pravitto Raju, Ajithkumar Kamaraj and several others blossomed in Chennai City’s colours.
Chennai City looked unbeatable in the first phase of the league and were the clear favourites to win the title at the midway stage. The likes of Pedro Manzi, Sadro Rodriguez and Nestor Gordillo were in supreme form with the combination play amongst them a treat to watch.
But they fumbled in the second leg and allowed East Bengal to reduce the gap at the top of the table. After a couple of poor performances against NEROCA FC and Churchill Brothers in the final rounds, they allowed the title race to stretch into the final matchday.
The fate of the league was left on the wire on the final matchday of the season. Chennai hosted reigning champions Minerva Punjab FC with a slender one-point lead over East Bengal. The Red and Golds, on the other hand, travelled to Kozhikode to take on Gokulam Kerala.
The final matchday saw dramatic actions in the two South Indian cities, Coimbatore and Kozhikode. Both Chennai City and East Bengal trailed at half time by a goal to nil.
But Chennai staged a comeback in the second half and scored three goals to win the league. East Bengal too had won their match in the end but it was just meant to serve as a photo finish for the underdogs.
To have identified and brought players like Manzi, Gordillo and Rodriguez was a key factor in Chennai City’s story that season. 37 of 48 goals were scored by Chennai City FC was contributed by the Spanish trio of Manzi, Gordillo and Rodriguez.
Not to say the Indian players did nothing. In fact the local players also stepped up as Vanspaul was shifted to the right-back position. Despite losing their best player in Michael Soosairaj in the transfer window, the rest of the contingent stepped up to ensure that they never felt his absence.
Nawaz deserves a lot of credit for getting the best out of his troops with the highlight being their twin wins over East Bengal.
Like the past two seasons, Indian football witnessed yet another fairytale story of an underdog side who, from being strugglers in the league, went on to become the champions of India.