The top half of the table has all along seemed Chennaiyin FC’s rightful place. On Saturday, it returned there — to second spot on goal-difference — with a 2-1 win over FC Pune City thanks to goals from Frenchman Bernard Mendy and Colombian John Stiven Mendoza.
The performance on the day was devoid of much of the glitz that Elano and Mendoza so often impart, but it was so assured that the tinkerer in Marco Materazzi might have finally seen the players who could form a part of his best eleven.
Chennaiyin made as many as six changes. Elano, Mendoza, Thoi Singh, Raphael Augusto, Mailson Alves all started, and Edel Bete was replaced in the goal by Karanjit Singh.
The initial exchanges of the game were tepid. The home side’s midfielders Augusto and Manuele Blasi played much deeper, leaving a large unmanned space between them and the attackers. Didier Zokora and Eugenson Lyngdoh, who occupied that area, were under absolutely no pressure. Yet, neither pushed forward to create, robbing Pune of the chance to force the issue.
Chennaiyin slowly settled in and the first attempt came in the 19th minute when a cross from the left by Jayesh Rane saw Elano control the ball exquisitely only for the toe-poke to be pushed away by from point-blank range by Steve Simonsen.
Alves was superb in defence, especially with his ball distribution. One of those occasions was when he delivered a fantastic long ball to Mendoza, whose one-on-one was saved.
The opener came in the 34th minute; a superb throw-in by Dhanachandra Singh — into the far right corner from the left touch line — was headed in by Bernard Mendy. Pune could have equalised in the first half injury time but Ravanan’s fierce shot on the turn was saved well by Karanjit.
An assured collection from the resulting corner earned him the crowd’s applause.
Right after the restart, Turk Tuncay Sanli mishit his shot from a promising range. That was perhaps the last of the visitors’ chances. From thereon Chennaiyin stepped it up. Augusto moved a tad forward to bridge the gap between his side’s defence and offence and the pressure resulted in the second goal.
In the 48th minute, Pune lost the ball in the midfield and Elano, after evading Zokora, delivered one of his signature through balls for Mendoza to round the goalie and score his sixth of the season.
For the next half hour or so, Pune was toyed with. Thoi Singh, as industrious as ever on the right flank, and Jayesh on the left kept up the pressure relentlessly.
Coach David Platt, desperate in his attempts to fashion something, threw everything he had. Three substitutions were made in quick succession; the last of which saw Romanian and former Chelsea star Adrian Mutu take the field.
Pune did pull one back in the 75th minute when Nigerian Kalu Uche converted following a goal-mouth scrap. But if it had hoped for a frenetic finish, it was not to be. All that it saw was first a towering header and then a well-connected overhead, both by Mutu, fall by the wayside.
The result: Chennaiyin FC 2 (Mendy 34, Mendoza 48) bt FC Pune City 1 (Uche 75).