Going by the official figures, a crowd of 19,453 filled the JLN Stadium on Thursday evening. It’s a record number, more than any Indian Super League match last season at this venue. Safe to say, most came to catch a glimpse of Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos.
Armed with banners and life-size posters of Delhi Dynamos’ marquee player-manager, they hoped the 42-year-old would make his promised second half appearance against Chennaiyin FC. He didn’t have to. Delhi’s other two ‘marquees’ — John Arne Riise and Florent Malouda — ensured Carlos did not have to trade his coach’s T-shirt for a players’ jersey. The two 35-year-olds are among the four players who have been assigned leadership role in the team, others being Dutchman Hans Mulder and Brazil’s Anderson Cardoso, who scored the penalty in Delhi’s 1-0 win. On Thursday, there was little doubt over who the leaders were. Riise and Malouda controlled the play on either side of the field perfectly.
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The Norwegian, particularly, rolled back the years with a stellar performance as a centre-back, playing the proverbial wall to perfection. Nothing could go past him. He made clean tackles, won aerial duels and organised the defence well, an area where Delhi lacked whole of last season. Up front, Malouda’s physical presence kept Chennaiyin’s fragile defence on its toes. The Frenchman would often fall back, helping his midfield in the physically-charged tie.
‘Better team lost’
They might have lost, but the two best plays belonged to the visitors. First, Brazilian Elano played a measured through ball towards Abhishek Das, but Riise emerged from nowhere and intercepted it comfortably. Their Colombian striker John Mendoza then burst through the middle, blazing past Delhi players using his sheer pace and strength. He covered almost 35 yards but his final shot deflected off the post.
Chennaiyin assistant coach Vivek Nagal insisted his team was better of the two and did not deserve to lose. But they would reflect on costly defensive errors in both their matches. Against Atletico de Kolkata in the opening match, Chennaiyin’s error-prone defence gifted the defending champions two goals. They even conceded a penalty, which was saved by goalkeeper Apoula Edel.
On Thursday, their defence once again conceded a penalty inside the first 10 minutes. Italian Manuele Blasi appeared to have handed the ball inside the box and referee Tejas Nagvenkar had no hesitation in awarding penalty to the hosts. Chennai called the decision ‘dubious’ but Carlos felt it was a clear penalty although he did question other decisions by the referee.
All along, Carlos has said his team would play attacking football, insisting people don’t come to the stadium to watch a tie. But they appeared comfortable defending once they had taken the lead in the eighth minute.
Chennai, one of the strongest sides on paper, enjoyed more possession and created more chances but they lacked quality in the attacking third. They relied too much on Elano, who scored in their opening match. The other goal-scorer from that match, Jeje Lalpekhlua, was away on national team duty, where he found the target in India’s 2-1 defeat to Turkmenistan.
But worryingly for Chennaiyin coach Marco Materazzi, apart from Mendoza, none of the others came close to troubling Delhi goalkeeper Sanjiban Ghosh. Perhaps, it was because of the way Riise organised and led Delhi’s defence. Materazzi hugged Carlos after the final whistle and stormed into the dressing room. In his first stint as a full-time manager, the Italian has a lot to ponder after the two defeats.