Chennai City FC’s recipe for I-League success - Foreign signings and positive football
Early setback, a fighting performance and a late goal to seal the match - Chennai City FC’s final I-League encounter against Minerva Punjab FC on Saturday was a true embodiment of their season. From rebuilding the majority of its squad ahead of the tournament to becoming champions, it was truly a special journey for the team. The competition was not without its fair share of challenges for the Coimbatore-based club, but Akbar Nawas and his team came out on top at the end of the season.
Chennai City FC joined the I-League three years back and considering their performances in the last two seasons, hardly anyone would have given them any chance at winning the title. The side suffered a major blow at the start of the season as in-form talent - Michael Soosairaj - decided to leave for the Indian Super League and the new coach was handed the challenge of rebuilding the entire squad.
However, Nawas surprised everyone with his choices. The former Tampines Rovers coach signed Roberto Eslava, Nestor Gordillo and Sandro Rodriguez from lower division clubs in Canary Islands and Catalonia while striker Pedro Manzi was signed from a fourth division team in Spain. Although these were completely unknown names at that moment, the foreign signings were integral to the team’s success as 40 out of the total 48 goals in the season was scored by their Spanish contingent.
The Spanish imports brought their own brand of football and with coach Nawas opting for offensive strategies, Chennai City FC slowly became one of the most lethal sides in the team. Gordillo and Manzi formed a brilliant partnership at the top of the field while Sandro played from the deep and was responsible for starting most of the moves. The fluid passing among the midfielders allowed the team to control possession and with Pedro Manzi scoring at will, there was no stopping them.
Manzi, who declared boldly at the start of the season that he wants to help his team win the league, was easily the player of the tournament for Chennai City FC. The Spanish striker was lethal inside the penalty box and with 21 goals, he was the top goal-scorer in the I-League along with Churchill Brothers’ Willis Plaza. With Gordillo providing crucial passes, Manzi was not devoid of chances and his multiple hat-tricks in the season made him an instant favourite among experts and fans alike.
Despite all this, the season was not exactly a cakewalk for Chennai City FC. Although they never lost their spot in the top half of the table, defeats in crucial games kept them on their toes. With just a win needed to clinch the title, they succumbed to a defeat against Churchill Brothers and even against Minerva, they conceded an early goal to provide a glimmer of hope to the East Bengal supporters. But, they showed their usual fighting spirit and were eventually successful in claiming their maiden title.
Thanks to this victory, Chennai City FC became the third first-time winner in the last three seasons of the I-League but their future still remains uncertain. Ahead of the final game, I-League CEO Sunanda Dhar made it clear that the I-League and ISL will be merged into one tournament from next season. With ISL already having eight teams and the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) keen on adding East Bengal and Mohun Bagan to the mix, Chennai City FC can find themselves in the second division.
When asked about their uncertain future, coach Nawas did not reveal their plans but had one suggestion for the AIFF. “I hope we are there next season. It is not for me to comment. I think there should be a unified league with 20 teams. The national team would benefit more. Every professional player should play at least 45 games a season,” Nawas said at the post-match press conference.