Chennaiyin's miracle men do just enough to spoil Goa's party
Chennaiyin FC are in the final of the 2019-20 ISL season after beating league-topping, shield-winning FC Goa.
The tie ended 6-5 on aggregate and even that absurd scoreline only tells half the tale. Chennaiyin won the first leg 4-1, and lost the second 2-4 in an incredible match that refused to peter out as such high-pressure contests often do.
Goa's nearly-comeback took place in two phases - the opening twenty and the closing ten. In the minutes in between, though, Chennaiyin did just about enough to see the semi-final through. That, and the 90 minutes of the first leg in Chennai, of course.
With a raucous Fatorda behind them, Goa started the game looking already like champions. Chennaiyin gave them too much respect, too much space, and even a pre-match guard of honour. Goa almost made them pay. In that opening phase, under near incessant pressure, Chennaiyin wilted; a 4-1 aggregate lead becoming 4-3 before they got a proper feel for the ball.
For those twenty minutes, Goa swamped the Chennaiyin half, an angry swarm of orange directed hither and thither by the languid Ahmed Jahouh. As his team-mates buzzed about in front of him, Jahouh was the calmness that made it all tick, the proverbial eye of the storm. And boy, was it a storm.
Jackichand Singh raced in behind the lines, Coro flitted in between them, and Hugo Boumous pushed the midfield deeper and deeper into their defensive third. Goa were all over their opponents. Sergio Lobera would have been proud.
A Lucian Goian own goal gave Goa the lead on the night, before Mourtada Fall, all six foot five and ninety odd kilograms of him, sailed through the air to send the ball and his markers - and even some of his own men - into the back of the net to make it two.
Just that at moment, though, something snapped. Boumous, arguably the player of the season so far, had to be taken off - the shoulder injury that kept him out of the first leg flaring up -- and on his place came Edu Bedia. Now, Edu is a delightfully insouciant playmaker but having only played a bit-part role this season, he took time to adjust, and Goa's initial flash of momentum dissipated into the warm Margao evening.
As Edu dropped deeper and deeper, Chennaiyin's midfield reasserted themselves and started controlling the game. While they weren't living up to Owen Coyle's pre-match promise of playing attacking, high-tempo football, they had at least reminded themselves that they were still playing this game. That they were still, as the cliché goes, in the driver's seat.
Chennaiyin started the second half much better and they got two goals in seven minutes, the second coming just before the hour mark as Nerijus Valskis rose high, criminally unmarked in the Goan six yard box, to thump a header past Mohammad Nawaz. As the ball hit the net, it looked like that was very much that. Fatorda fell silent, the fizz taken out of their collective voice. Thanks to the away goals rule, Goa needed four goals from here and that simply was not happening, was it?
Which is when the second phase of the near-comeback hit.
After having seen his team spend the majority of the second half nudging and prodding futilely at the massed ranks of the Chennaiyin defensive unit, Clifford Miranda decided to throw the kitchen sink at them. And soon followed that up with the whole kitchen.
The last ten minutes were spent almost entirely in the Chennaiyin defensive third. As first Edu and then the converted centre-forward Fall made it four on the night, it looked like the visitors were going to wilt all over again. Manvir Singh and Mandar Rao Dessai had shots blocked. Seriton Fernandes smashed one too high. Fall fell over himself as he missed an open goal from five yards out. Savior Gama, scorer of that lone away goal in the first leg, then got himself sent off as the orange horde pressed high and pressed hard.
In the end, though, Chennaiyin held on.
It was not convincing, it was far from assured, but they will not care. Having been bottom of the league in December, to make the final is an astounding achievement. In the 14 matches Coyle has been in charge for, they have lost just three, though tonight's defeat may well count as another win.
The revolution has had its bumps, it has been tested, and tonight it went through the wringer, but it is still going strong. In every pre-match press conference this season, Coyle had repeated the mantra that he was going to take it "one game at a time". Now, he and his men have just one more to go. The big one. Glory beckons.