For a side that finished second to bottom in last Hero Indian Super League, qualification to the play-offs in an extended season with more teams and challenges sure calls for the celebration.
Chennaiyin FC’s semifinal berth this season means the former champions have turned things around and established themselves among the top teams again. But the Super Machans would know that the journey now only gets tougher, and one thing which could worry them in the hunt for second ISL trophy is the dry spell of goals from their star striker Jeje Lalpekhlua.
The lone Indian to have been trusted enough to start as the lead striker in this edition of ISL, Jeje has had mixed success. He drew a blank in the first three games, scored seven in the next nine and struggled for goals again as he couldn’t find the back of the net in five games that followed, including a painful miss from the spot.
Having already qualified, Jeje was rested for the concluding league clash against Mumbai City FC – along with seven others – but he surely will be in the thick of action again in the semi-finals against archrivals FC Goa.
Fans could only pray that their star striker strikes form at the right time, and the big occasion could spur the India striker to deliver the goods.
“This season, only Chennaiyin FC are playing with a lead Indian striker. When the league started, I was thrown a challenge to score goals and help the team because the other teams have foreign strikers who are scoring goals,” said had Jeje earlier.
The Mizoram-born striker is a loyal servant since inception in 2014. He has grown in stature over the period and established himself as the first-choice forward for the national team as well. It surprised nobody when Chennaiyin FC decided to retain him for a record salary of Rs 1.3 crore, rather than allow him to go into the domestic player draft and be picked up by rival clubs.
Jeje was the top Indian goalscorer for the Machans in all three previous seasons with four goals in 2014, six in 2015 and three in 2016. But interestingly, he was never the top goalscorer for the former champions in any of the seasons. He was largely playing the role of the supporting striker and was not the main outlet for goals when there were the likes of Elano Blumer, Stiven Mendoza and Dudu Omagbemi.
Even for the national team, he had Sunil Chhetri to bear the brunt of the goalscoring responsibilities and pressure that comes with it.
But the 2017-18 season saw coach John Gregory hand the goalscoring responsibilities outright to Jeje. To be fair, he has shouldered the responsibilities well, scoring seven times – his personal best in ISL so far. He had to change his game to adapt to a lead striker’s role rather than a supporting one.
As the semifinal battle against FC Goa draws near, John Gregory and his team will be desperate for Jeje to start scoring again. In the past, whether it was with Arrows, Dempo Sports Club or Mohun Bagan, he has shown he has the nose for goals. Now, he must lead the line single-handedly.