Indian Super League outfit Chennaiyin FC defeated Nepal’s Manang Marshyangdi Club 3-2 in the final 2019 AFC Cup Group E matchday at the ANFA Complex in Kathmandu today; a brace from striker Mohammed Rafi and a solo goal from defender Eli Sabia proving the difference. However the victory was not enough to seal CFC’s progress to the AFC Cup knockout stage, as Bangladesh’s Abahani Limited Dhaka instead went through after beating Minerva Punjab 1-0 in the other group game in Guwahati.
Abahani progress to the Inter-Zone Semi-Finals as Group E toppers with 13 points as Chennaiyin conclude their debut AFC Cup campaign in second place with 11 points, bringing an end to the latter’s 2018-19 campaign.
Head Coach John Gregory made four changes to the side that drew 1-1 with Minerva Punjab last week. Brazilian Eli Sabia returned from suspension in place of Zohmingliana Ralte. Thoi Singh replaced Dhanpal Ganesh as forward CK Vineeth made way for Mohammed Rafi, who had scored the equalizer against Minerva. And there was a CFC debut for 19-year-old Reamsochung Aimol at right-back, with Laldinliana Renthlei on the bench. Aimol has featured for the CFC B team and recently enjoyed a stint with AIFF developmental side Indian Arrows.
The changes rung in by the Chennaiyin gaffer meant Anirudh Thapa and Francisco Fernandes had a free role in midfield with Chris Herd shielding the defence. Isaac Vanmalsawma and Thoi played on the flanks with Rafi upfront.
Manang had an early chance when Afeez Olawale was put through on goal by Bishal Rai’s pass. The Nigerian forward though hacked at his shot and put it way wide.
CFC got into the game thereafter but couldn’t create the incisive passes in the final third. Free-kicks and corner kicks kept coming their way, but it just didn’t seem to be clicking in front of goal.
Just past the half-hour mark, Manang had a chance against the run of play from the long ball. Abhishek Rijal’s long ball found Olawale, who took a touch and went past the onrushing CFC keeper and turned it goal-wards. But the retreating CFC skipper Mailson Alves was at hand to clear.
Chennaiyin had the half’s best chance to open the scoring moments later. Eli Sabia’s headed cross into the box following a corner found an unmarked Herd, who failed to connect. The looping ball then fell to Rafi inside the six-yard box, the striker astonishingly heading it over from close range.
The second half got off to a frenetic start with Thapa almost giving Chennaiyin the lead. After some good build-up play, the ball fell to the CFC No. 15, whose shot was saved at point-blank range by Manang keeper Bishal Shrestha.
The resulting corner saw Chennaiyin finally break the deadlock in the 53rd minute. Thapa received the ball short and stood it up at the far post for 37-year-old Mohammed Rafi to head it past the keeper’s reach and give CFC a valuable one-goal lead.
Chennaiyin’s second came ten minutes later from an unlikely source in Eli Sabia. It was a surprising solo strike from the Brazilian defender, who carried the ball from defence, deep into the Manang half, before playing a one-two with Rafi. He then rounded the keeper before coolly passing it into the back of the net for his first AFC Cup goal and second overall this campaign.
Manang though weren’t lying about, pulling a goal back through Olawale. The Nigerian marksman took advantage of the high Chennaiyin backline, running on to Heman Gurung’s pass and slotting it past Karanjit in goal.
With ten minutes to go, Manang drew level as Olawale scored again. His first touch from a long ball took him past the wrong-footed Mailson, before he curled it low past Karanjit.
Chennaiyin went on the jugular immediately after and found the winner just before the end of regulation time. Isaac’s dinked free kick into the box was chested down by Mailson before firing a shot against the upright. The rebound fell kindly to Rafi inside the six-yard box, who had the simple task of heading it into an empty net.
Despite the victory, it was heartbreak for CFC in the end as news came in of Abahani scoring an injury-time winner against Minerva through Afghan defender Masih Saighani, which meant the Bangladeshi side qualify to the AFC Cup knockout stage at CFC’s expense.