Ahead of the 2018-19 I-League season, the 11 participating teams surely fancied their chances of winning the title this year. But, while for some it seemed like wishful thinking, others - the big dogs of the league - seemed realistic in their title claims. The likes of Churchill Brothers who won the title on two occasions were amongst the top contenders. And, so were defending champions Minerva Punjab whose fairytale run last season had made them a team to watch out for.
So, when Chennai City's Spanish forward Pedro Manzi, ahead of the 2018-19 season, claimed that his side will go on to win the I-League title, many lauded his confidence, while quietly rejecting his bold claim. And, they weren't wrong either. It's good to be optimistic at the start of a season, but going by Chennai's fortunes in the league, Manzi's prediction seemed a bit far-fetched.
Chennai had barely avoided the drop on the last day of the 2017-18 season after winning just four games in total. That season also saw Chennai scoring a mere 15 goals in 18 games that saw them finishing at a lowly eighth spot. If that wasn't enough, the fact that Chennai had only won eight games in the history of their participation in the I-League, further made everyone question Manzi's title claims.
But, what eventually unfolded in the recently-concluded season was no less than a fairytale for Chennai and their fans.
When we made the dressing room, a mess ððð¦ ! pic.twitter.com/ujIxSGkUFv— Chennai City FC (@ChennaiCityFC) March 9, 2019
Chennai found themselves in trouble even before kicking the ball this season. They lost Michael Soosairaj - their star performer last season - to the riches of Indian Super League (IPL) as he joined Jamshedpur FC for Rs 25 lakh. But, that didn't stop Chennai from dreaming on.
They roped in Singaporean football coach, Akbar Nawas, who continued the club's tradition of signing cheaper, but effective, players to bolster the squad for the season. Manzi was roped in from a fourth-division side in Spain, Sandro Rodriguez came from the third division in the Canary Islands and Nelson Gordillo was bought from third-tier Cornella from Catalonia - a Spanish trio that was going to changing the fortunes for Chennai.
As Nawas built his team around the Spanish troika, his aspirations, unlike Manzi, were more realistic and grounded. The Chennai manager was hoping to make it to the "mid table" in the I-League - something they hadn't done in the past.
The Coimbatore-based club began the season with an emphatic 4-1 triumph over Indian Arrows which was followed by four wins in five games. Their first loss came against another underdog side Real Kashmir - a team they failed to beat all season. But, that didn't concern them as their high pressing, possession-dominant style of play allowed them to go to the top of the league by December. And, it was the Spanish signings that were carrying Chennai forward.March 11, 2019
An exceptional centre-forward, Manzi bamboozled opposition defenders with his pace and skills. For someone who managed to score goals at will, Manzi also held the ball pretty well and engaged defenders to create spaces for his teammates. His long-rage strike against Aizawl secured vital points for his side. And, another hat-trick against Gokulam saved Chennai the blushes in a closely-contested clash.
If Manzi, who began the season with a brilliant hat-trick against the Arrows, was raking in one goal after another, the midfield duo of Rodriguez and Gordillo provided Chennai the vision to break through the tightest of defence. The two Spanish midfielders showcased the ability to play in a variety of positions as they were often seen shuffling flanks to keep the opposition guessing.March 10, 2019
While Gordillo developed a knack for finding Manzi with his defence-splitting passes, Rodriguez's ability to score from set-pieces further aided Chennai through their campaign. The Spanish trio of Manzi, Gordillo and Rodriguez showcased patience, understanding and skill over the course of the season in a partnership that kept Chennai in the hunt for the title.
In the end, Chennai thwarted East Bengal's challenge and claimed the title by beating Minerva Punjab 3-1. After a 0-0 deadlock in the first-half, Manzi got Chennai in front in 56th minute before defender Gaurav Bora's brace (69', 90+2') sealed the game for the hosts. While Manzi finished the season with 21 goals, Gordillo appeared to be in a league of his own with 44 key passes. And, the fact that 40 out of the 48 goals scored by Chennai this season came through their Spanish trio, further highlights their importance in Nawas' side.March 9, 2019
Claiming their maiden I-League title, Chennai have become the first team from Tamil Nadu to be crowned champions. And, they achieved the feat just two years after getting promoted to the first division. For a team that was fighting relegation by the skin of their teeth last season, Chennai's marauding run to the I-League is no less than a fairytale that will be an inspiration for generations to come.