CHENNAI: In football, as in life, replacing someone can be the hardest thing ever. Thursday was supposed to be a victorious homecoming for Chennaiyin FC, their first appearance at the JN Stadium since they won the title in spectacular fashion in Goa last year. It’s probably a testament to the ephemeral nature of the Indian Super League (ISL), that whoever turned up in the blue jerseys against Delhi Dynamos looked little like the set that, last year, sometimes looked like a force of nature.
Gone were John Stiven Mendoza, whom dozens of defenders in the league had chased unsuccessfully for two years, and midfield maestro Elano. Bernard Mendy looked more like a former East Bengal player than a former PSG one while Edel Bete’s replacement in goal — Duwayne Kerr — was perhaps the most unconvincing player on the pitch. The result was a 1-3 drubbing at the hands of Delhi — not the best way to start the home leg of a title defence.
It was perhaps fitting that Dudu Omagbemi was Chennaiyin’s most potent attacking threat.
The match started with both teams creating their share of chances, but it was Delhi who grew brighter as the game wore on. Richard Gadze thought he had given Delhi an early lead in the 11th minute, but was flagged offside. Kerr gave an inkling of things to come, in the 15th minute, when he passed the ball straight to a charging Kean Lewis, but the Delhi forward lost his footing before he could do anything with it.
The first goal came towards the end of the opening quarter when Kerr clumsily collided into Milan Singh after the Manipuri had put the ball past the Jamaican. It was Marcelinho – the Brazilian had been a livewire throughout the first half – who stepped up and he coolly found the bottom left-corner, sending Kerr the wrong way.
Chennai were behind for just six minutes – Omagbemi converting a delicious through-ball by Jeje Lalpekhlua. But just two minutes later, Marcelinho – who looks more and more like this season’s Mendoza – broke Chennai’s spirits with a blistering strike that belonged in Europe’s top tier. The Brazilian flashed past two defenders to latch onto Gadze’s pass and drilled it past Kerr. The goal had everything – power, pace and precision.
Delhi had a minor blow in the opening minutes of the second half when Anas Edathodika was injured, but Chennai was never really able to exploit the void he left behind in defence. Marco Materazzi tried to change things around, throwing on 18-year-old Jerry Lalrinzuala for Nallappan Mohanraj, who was being given twisted blood by Kean Lewis. Italian striker Davide Succi and Siam Hangal also came on in the 72nd minute, but it was all to no avail.
The icing on the cake for Delhi came in the 84th minute, when substitute Badara Badji nodded home a pin-point Lewis cross. The two-goal cushion was no less than what Delhi deserved.
For Gianluca Zambrotta and his men, a trip to Kerala Blasters await. Materazzi meanwhile must hope to set things right when his old nemesis Zico comes calling next week.