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Owen-fresh Chennaiyin FC get hotter by the game

CHENNAI: What a change a few games can make! Back when John Gregory’s reign as Chennaiyin FC manager was petering down to a drab, boring end, defiant shouts of support occasionally disturbed the disappointed silence at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

Seven games later, on Thursday, chants of ‘this is awesome’ rung throughout the stadium. Chennaiyin were no force of nature in their 4-1 victory over Jamshedpur FC. But they were very good, clearly the better team in the contest.

The midfielders were creative and combative, the strikers were clinical enough and the defence did not make too many mistakes. For fans, who’ve had to sit through some mindnumbing fare since the beginning of last season, this must have felt like heaven.

More importantly, the victory continued the unlikeliest of recoveries. A couple of months ago, Chennaiyin’s season looked over before it even began. But now they’re three points off fourth place with a game in hand over Odisha FC who occupy that spot.

Nobody deserves more credit for the turnaround than Owen Coyle, who has won four of his seven games since taking over. A few changes he’s made since taking over look inspired. Edwin Sydney Vanspaul, who Coyle converted from a right-back to a central midfielder, now looks like he had been playing there for ever. His replacement in defence, Laldinliana, looked impressive for the second game in a row.

Chennaiyin, who looked blunt under Gregory, now look lethal. On Thursday, the first goal came after just eight minutes. Italian midfielder Rafael Crivellaro won the ball and poked it to forward Andre Schembri. He found his strike partner Nerijus Valskis with a precise through ball and the Lithuanian does not miss too many from there.

Schembri went from provider to scorer as the first half drew to a close. Jamshedpur goalkeeper Subrata Pal had just pulled off an acrobatic save to deny Valskis. But when Schembri sneaked past his marker and headed Rafael’s corner in, Subrata was powerless.

Edwin’s and midfield partner Anirudh Thapa’s domination of the centre of the park was such that Jamshedpur was rendered completely ineffectual in the final third — Chennaiyin goalkeeper Vishal Kaith made his first save in the 68th minute. They did manage to cast some doubt over the result three minutes later, through Sergio Castel. But Chennaiyin’s forwards soon snuffed out any hope that might have lingered.

First, in the 74th minute, it was Valskis’ turn to get a second. Thapa played an exquisite through-ball from deep inside the midfield that Valskis first controlled with the side of his foot, then chipped over an onrushing Subrata. This was his tenth goal of the season and is league’s top-scorer.

Then, with just three minutes left for normal time to end, substitute Dragos Firtulescu took a shot on goal that Subrata could only palm away. The rebound fell to Lallianzuala Chhangte, who converted.

That goal sealed Chennaiyin’s third straight win, the first time they’re doing this since November 2017. They now face strugglers Kerala Blasters away before taking on Bengaluru FC at home. Win both and chasing down a top-four finish will look like a realistic prospect.