Chennaiyin eye 1st AFC Cup group stage win

IANS
Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A resurgent Chennaiyin FC side has shifted focus to the AFC Cup in search of their first group stage victory when they welcome Nepal's Manang Marshyangdi Club to The Arena Stadium here on Wednesday.

Having drawn their opening group game 0-0 against compatriots Minerva Punjab two weeks back, Chennaiyin come into this one on the back of a narrow 2-1 defeat to FC Goa in the Hero Super Cup final three days back.

Despite the loss in what was their third major final in five years of existence, Chennaiyin are buoyed by the upturn in their recent form. Head Coach John Gregory had overseen a six-game unbeaten spell in all competitions before the Super Cup final defeat, with four wins and two draws, a run which also saw them keep five clean sheets.

CFC have been boosted by the return of midfielder Dhanpal Ganesh and left-back Jerry Lalrinzuala to the starting eleven in recent games. Both Indians made giant strides in their comeback from injury layoffs by playing from the start in the Super Cup semis and final.

The Brazilian central defensive duo of skipper Mailson Alves and Eli Sabia along with custodian Karanjit Singh have also found form in both cup competitions. And young midfielder Anirudh Thapa was one of the standout performers for CFC in the run to the Super Cup final with two goals and two assists to his name.

"The AFC Cup has inspired us and helped us regain our form and confidence. Playing in the AFC Cup is a huge honour and privilege for us and we wish to go as far as possible in this competition. Manang will surely pose a tough challenge, but we will be ready. The players are all focused," said the Chennaiyin gaffer at the pre-match press conference.

"The coaches and the medical staff have helped me immensely in making the comeback from injury. The coach (John Gregory) has placed his faith in me and it is my responsibility to repay that faith and help the team. I need to focus and give my 100% in every match," said Chennaiyin's young left-back Jerry Lalrinzuala, who was also in attendance.

CFC will be aiming to carry this positive momentum into their AFC Cup campaign. A first ever win in the group stages will be the single objective within the entire camp, with Manang the next challengers.

Along with Chennaiyin, this is Manang's maiden group stage campaign in the AFC Cup. They are also the first Nepali outfit to feature in the AFC Cup group stages. With a record eight national league titles to their name, they are one of the most successful clubs in Nepal. Manang qualified for the 2019 AFC Cup group stage following the 2018-19 Nepal A-Division League title triumph with an impressive 12 wins in 13 games.

Manang have several talented local players in their ranks, including 23-year-old Nepal international Heman Gurung. The midfielder is sure to have his work cut out against a robust Chennaiyin midfield as Manang venture into their first ever AFC Cup game on the road.

Manang interestingly also have an Indian player in their ranks. The 22-year-old central defender, Muhammad Asif, who hails from Kerala, is one of the four foreigners in the Manang squad. Asif signed for Manang from Calcutta Customs last October, earning the privilege of becoming an Indian footballer representing a foreign club at the continental stage.

Manang's three other foreign players are all Nigerians - defender Azeez Saheed, and forwards Afeez Olawale Oladipe and Adelaja Somide Oluwaunmi, all of them playing an influential role in Manang's recent title triumph. Adelaja has also plied his trade in India in the past, turning out notably for the likes of East Bengal FC, Gokulam Kerala FC and Mohammaden Sporting, among others, before making the move to Nepal last season.

The other Group E game on matchday two between Bangladesh's Abahani Limited Dhaka and India's Minerva Punjab will be played in the former's home ground on the same day.

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