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Chennaiyin FC and Bangladesh’s Abahani face off in crucial encounter

Chennaiyin FC striker Mohammed Rafi and head John Gregory at the AFC Cup pre-match press conference. (Photo courtesy: Chennaiyin FC)
Chennaiyin FC striker Mohammed Rafi and head John Gregory at the AFC Cup pre-match press conference. Photo courtesy: Chennaiyin FC

Chennaiyin FC are set to welcome Bangladesh’s Abahani Limited Dhaka for their final 2019 AFC Cup Group E home game at The Arena Stadium in Ahmedabad on Tuesday April 30, 2019 with kick-off at 7:30 PM. Going into this matchday three tie, both sides are locked on four points each with Chennaiyin top of the table on goal difference and Abahani second.

CFC will be buoyed after picking up their first AFC Cup group stage victory with a 2-0 win over Nepal’s Manang Marshyangdi Club in their previous outing less than two weeks back, courtesy goals scored by skipper Mailson Alves and Australian midfielder Chris Herd. The clash with Abahani will be the first of a double header, with CFC traveling to Bangladesh for the reverse fixture in a fortnight.

Chennaiyin come into this one with seven clean sheets in their last ten outings in all competitions, not having conceded in the AFC Cup campaign so far with four games played.

In terms of team news, CFC will be without Brazilian midfielder Raphael Augusto through injury with the rest of the squad fit. Abahani on the other hand will be without their top-scorer Sunday Chizoba and defenders Tapu Barman and Tutul Hossain Badsha.

“Abahani will be a big test but the boys have trained well and are 100% focused for what will be our last home game of the group stage. It can be a challenge to maintain motivation with such gaps between games, but credit to the boys they have been great professionals with some fantastic work rate. Defensively we’ve become more resolute, including the likes of (Mohammed) Rafi here who defend from the front,” said Head Coach John Gregory at the official pre-match press conference.

Alongside Gregory was 36-year-old striker Mohammed Rafi, who is one of nine existing CFC players to have featured in the AFC Cup for other clubs in previous seasons. Rafi has two AFC Cup goals to his name while playing for Mahindra United back in the 2007 edition, one of which came in the quarterfinals. He made his first start of this season in the previous group game against Manang.

“We followed the coach’s instructions and strategy and managed to get a good result against Manang. Now the focus shifts to Abahani. Only a win will do and nothing else, that’s our objective,” said the experienced Kerala-born marksman.

Interestingly, Chennaiyin FC Assistant Coach Syed Sabir Pasha has played for Abahani in the past. The former India international featured for the Bangladesh giants in the 1999 and 2000 seasons.

From the current CFC squad for the AFC Cup, three players have faced Abahani in the recent past, namely Mizo sniper Jeje Lalpekhlua, Kerala forward CK Vineeth and Mizo central defender Zohmingliana Ralte. Jeje and Vineeth played against them for Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC respectively in the 2017 AFC Cup, while Ralte turned out for Bengaluru FC in the 2018 version.

Nicknamed the Sky Blues, Abahani are coached by Portuguese tactician Mario Lemos who joined them in December last year after their Bangladesh Federation Cup triumph. Lemos also served as the Bangladesh national team’s fitness coach for a brief period earlier last year. The 2019 edition is Abahani’s third consecutive appearance in the AFC Cup group stage, qualifying this time as Bangladesh Federation Cup winners. The Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) side haven’t progressed beyond the AFC Cup group stages, finishing third in their group in last year’s edition.

This AFC Cup campaign, all four of Abahani’s foreign recruits – Nigerian forward Sunday Chizoba, Haitian striker Kervens Belfort, Afghan defender Masih Saighani and Brazilian midfielder Wellington Priori, their latest signing – have all played at Indian clubs in the recent past. Chizoba played for Churchill Brothers in the 2014-15 I-League season while Belfort has led the line for Kerala Blasters FC (2016-17), Jamshedpur FC (2017-18) and Gokulam Kerala FC (2018-19). Saighani played a season at 2017-18 I-League champions Aizawl FC before signing with Abahani. Priori joined the record six-time BPL champions last month, having featured for NorthEast United (2016) and Jamshedpur FC (2017-18).

The group’s other fixture sees Minerva Punjab host Manang Marshyangdi Club at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar a day later Wednesday 1st May with kick-off at 6:30 PM IST.

(Chennaiyin FC)