Chennaiyin FC vs Bengaluru FC (Photo: Twitter|ISL)
Chennai: More than just bragging rights will be on offer as South Indian rivals Chennaiyin FC and Bengaluru FC lock horns at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium here on Sunday.
The top-four race in the Indian Super League is heating up and Chennaiyin FC can move within two points of fourth-placed Mumbai City FC with a win against their arch-rivals. They also have a game in hand which could prove crucial. The hosts will also want a measure of revenge after the 3-0 loss they suffered in the reverse fixture.
With an integral six-pointer against current fourth-placed side Mumbai City FC coming up soon, Chennaiyin will be eager to take all three points against regional rivals Bengaluru to give themselves the best chance possible going into the vital fixture.
For Bengaluru FC, who are currently third on the table, the priority is the top spot with which comes a berth in the AFC Champions League. A win will see them close the gap with the top two teams, ATK and Goa, to just two points. Anything less will see the Gaurs and ATK nose ahead in that race for the top spot.
Owen Coyle's Chennaiyin are on a hot run of form currently. They are on a four-game winning streak and most recently defeated Kerala Blasters 6-3, with the likes of Nerijus Valskis, Rafael Crivellaro and Lallianzuala Chhangte impressing.
Central to Chennaiyin's surge up the table in 2020, has been the offensive brilliance of their attacking quartet - Nerijus Valskis, Rafael Crivellaro, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Andre Schembri. Valskis has been the pick of the bunch and is currently second in the Golden Boot table with 12 goals.
Getting his name on the scoresheet on Sunday will not only help the Lithuanian chase down, or even overtake, ATK's Roy Krishna, who currently leads the Golden Boot leaderboard with 13, but will also make him Chennaiyin's highest scorer in a single season. Stiven Mendoza currently holds the record with 13 goals in the 2015 edition.
"To win, we need to play well offensively. But there are going to be individual battles all around. Sunil Chhetri and Deshorn Brown are all good players. Brown has played against my team in the ISL," said Coyle.
Containing the Chennaiyin front-four will be a tough ask for the Bengaluru defence. They have been rejuvenated under Coyle and that is reflected in their output. Chennaiyin have scored 22 goals in eight matches under Coyle.
"It's clear that there's a new spirit in the Chennaiyin team since the new coach Owen Coyle came in. There's more creativity in their side, and they are a team that scores a lot of goals and defends well," said Bengaluru coach Carles Cuadrat.
"They are in a good dynamic. But as I've said about dynamics before, with every move you're closer to the end of it. When you are scoring every week, there will be one day when you stop scoring and that's normal," he added.
Chennaiyin's defence is yet to convince. Against a Bengaluru team in a high-stakes affair, that could be costly.
There's also another concern for Chennaiyin, with midfield lynchpin Anirudh Thapa picking up a suspension for this game. His absence will be a blow, with Germanpreet Singh expected to return to the team instead.
Bengaluru will look towards their set-piece prowess to deliver them goals. A majority of their 19 goals in the league have stemmed from dead-ball situations. Dimas Delgado's deliveries have proven deadly and so have the aerial ability of Erik Paartalu and Sunil Chhetri. And it is a something Coyle has factored in.
One interesting thing about the Blues offence, however, has been their over reliance on set pieces to find their goals. A whopping 12 of the 19 goals they have managed this season have come from dead ball situations, with eight of them coming from free kicks. If Chennaiyin manage to close off that avenue, the hosts will have a good chance to get one over their rivals in the crunch tie.
"We knew that we had to do better defensively. Bengaluru are a threat at set-plays. We will look at it. We don't leave any stone unturned. Their deliveries are good and they have physical players and pace on the counter. They have options. We have to be ready for that challenge. It is a challenge we want to come on top of. If we do that, we get three very important points," he said.
The Blues are coming off a 1-0 win over Hyderabad FC and will be confident of getting the better of Chennaiyin as well. Their defence, led by Juanan and Albert Serran, has been absolutely water-tight (only nine goals conceded) and will take some breaking down.
"We cannot afford to rotate against Chennaiyin. We're fighting for a spot in the AFC Champions League and we need to go for the points on Sunday," said Cuadrat.
The likes of Schembri, Crivellaro and Chhangte too have been in red hot form lately and Sunday's fixture presents the mouthwatering prospect of the league's most in-form attacking line-up going up against the Bengaluru defence - who have let in the least amount of goals (9) this season so far.
The two teams have served up some high-intensity clashes in the past. Expect Sunday's affair to be nothing less, given the stakes involved.
(With inputs from IANS and ISL)