At the beginning of the last decade, Owen Coyle was English football’s golden boy, taking on two unpromising situations and overachieving both times: first, by leading Burnley to promotion to Premier League after more than 30 years and then converting Bolton from being relegation rustlers to a respectable mid-table team. At one point, there was a clamour to appoint Coyle – who had spoken about Arsenal’s style as his own blueprint for how the game should be played – as Arsene Wenger’s successor.
He never became Arsenal’s manager. In fact, the wheels began coming off in Coyle’s growing popularity swiftly and for the rest of the decade, he barely lasted a full season at any club – be it in the US, England or his native, Scotland.
So, in the last month of a topsy-turvy decade from his perspective, Coyle landed in Chennai after consulting his countrymen and former players who have played in the ISL. He replaced Englishman John Gregory as two-time Indian Super League champions Chennaiyin FC’s manager. And in just two months, Coyle has shown that even though his stock has fallen so dramatically, he can still take charge of under-confident, struggling teams and turn them into overachievers.
The same Chennaiyin that earned the wooden-spoon in the 2018-19 season – winning just two matches in the whole term after starting as defending champions – and was at the bottom of the 10-team pile in December are now a win away from a playoff berth. The same bunch of players that looked overworked, out of ideas and lacking motivation, seem to have miraculously found their wings and are flying high again.
After scoring just four goals in six games at the start of the season under Gregory, Chennaiyin have found the back of the net 25 times in the 10 games since Coyle took over. In the process, they have picked up 20 points out of a possible 30, leapfrogging to fifth on the table.
Last week’s surprise win at ATK, which has nearly ended the Kolkata-based side’s hopes of finishing on top and securing an Asian Champions League spot, means Coyle’s side can seal their playoff berth if they beat fellow-contenders Mumbai City this Friday.
It’s tough to make sense of what Coyle is doing and how in such a short period. In England, he was lauded for his ability to extract everything out of his players, get them to overachieve and instill positivity and winning mentality in the dressing room.
At Chennaiyin, he simply seems to be following his style and pattern: work with minimal budgets, tap into full potential of youngsters and rely on unknown players.
At Bolton, for instance, he banked on little-known players like Stuart Holden and Paul Robinson in their outside bid for a European spot. At Chennaiyin, it is Nerijus Valskis.
Reportedly, the Lithuanian striker was initially rejected by the ISL organisers – who have a final say in five out of the seven foreigner each club signs.
The journeyman player’s profile, the organisers felt, did not meet the standards set by the league. It took a lot of convincing from Chennaiyin management to get ISL to reverse its decision.
Valskis struggled to score in the early part of the season but he is now the second-highest scorer in the league this season, scoring 13 goals in 16 games. Coyle has even managed to get young Indian players Anirudh Thapa and Lallianzuala Chhangte, who moved to Chennaiyin from Delhi (now Odisha) before the start of the season. The duo is among the few Indian players to have managed maximum playing time: Thapa justifying the call-ups with his vision and playmaking abilities while Chhangte’s pace on the wings has been too much for his opponents to handle; he could’ve even scored a few if he was less profligate. Yet, he has been instrumental in the turnaround.
A month ago, a playoff spot looked out of reach for Chennaiyin. Now, it will be an upset if they don’t make it.
As the league enters its home stretch, here’s a look at what the teams need to do to seal an Asian spot as well as qualify for the playoffs:
* ATK, who conceded the top spot to Goa after a shock home defeat to Chennaiyin, are three points behind with a match to play (Goa have 36 points in 17 games, ATK 33). Both, Goa and ATK, have one match to play – against Jamshedpur and Bengaluru respectively.
* If ATK drop points, Goa will finish the league stage on top and thus become the first Indian team to qualify for the Champions League while ATK will have to be content with an AFC Cup berth.
* Bengaluru FC have sealed the third spot and have qualified for the playoffs.
For the fourth and last playoff berth:
* There are three teams in contention: Mumbai City (4th, 26 points in 17 games), Chennaiyin (5th, 25 points in 16 games) and Odisha (6th, 24 points in 17 games).
* Mumbai host Chennaiyin on Friday. The side that wins this tie will qualify for the playoffs. In case of a draw, Chennaiyin will have to win their final match away to NorthEast United to overtake Mumbai and seal the fourth spot. From Odisha’s perspective, they need to win their last match at home to Kerala and hope the other results go their way.
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