It has been a forgettable season for Chennaiyin FC, which finds itself in eighth with one game to go in the Indian Super League (ISL 2021-22) season.
Anirudh Thapa, who took the role of captain for the first time, talks to Sportstar about the takeaways from the disappointing campaign, where it went wrong for the team and the national camp after the season. Chennaiyin plays its final match of the season against ATK Mohun Bagan on Thursday.
Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan for Chennaiyin FC, but what are the positives you will take from this season?
Everyone knows it was not a good season for us [Chennaiyin FC]. For me, the positive was that being the captain this time helped me take charge of leading the team. This experience will not only help me here but also in the national team. Apart from football, the leadership role helped me learn a lot in general and what I need to do in the future.
Anirudh Thapa of Chennaiyin FC and Adrian Luna of Kerala Blasters FC in action. – Focus Sports/ISL
How did you cope with the added pressure and responsibilities that came with being the captain?
If you talk about coping with the difficulties, it is not that different from being just a player. But now the players look up to me and it is my duty to help them when they are not playing at their best. I have to make sure that everyone is performing well and what things are going wrong on the field.
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Let us talk about Bozidar Bandovic, Chennayin’s former coach. What was the experience like working with him for the better part of the season? Given that you worked with him in close quarters, what is your general analysis of his coaching style and limitations?
He was a brilliant coach, but I think it was difficult for the players to understand what he wanted and to adapt to his playing style. The pre-season started with a 4-1-4-1 formation, but as the season progressed it turned to a 5-3-2. I think this is one of the reasons why things didn’t go our way, and we couldn’t get the results.
Anirudh Thapa’s Chennaiyin FC – ISL
Scoring goals has been an issue for the team this season. Teams like ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City conceded loose goals but balanced it with their goal-scoring abilities. Chennaiyin FC has scored the lowest number of goals in the league till now. Was that because of how Bandovic shaped his team?
I feel that the players were not comfortable with the sudden change of the formation and found difficulty in adapting. If we are used to playing in a certain style and are suddenly told to change that, it is difficult for everyone. I think the players did not understand what they had to do and that is the reason why we could not score more goals. We were quite defensive on our part, which was the main reason for our low goal count.
How tough was it losing an influential player like Rafael Crivellaro so early in the season? Chennaiyin missed his play-making capabilities in the final third.
We have all seen what Crivellaro can do. He is a great player and has the creativity to make things happen. But injuries happen and are a part of the game. Every player is important. In some ways or the other, we were lacking in our creativity. Considering the change in formation, we never know whether Rafael would have been effective or not, but he is undoubtedly one of the best creative midfielders we have in the league right now. So yes, in a way, the team missed his creativity on the pitch.
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It has been another taxing season in the bio-bubble. Apart from the physical challenges, how are you doing mentally?
It is tough and frustrating at times but we can’t do anything about it. When players tested positive, everything used to be delivered to our rooms, like the food. All we did was go out and train and come back. We did not have much to do. Last season helped me adjust to the situation, but the foreigners who came in found it difficult to adapt to the conditions. Some of them felt it might be easy but there was a lot of frustration at times. For me, I had some friends who I knew from before, which helped. Talking to them helped me clear stuff out. But overall, it was hard.
Chennaiyin captain Anirudh Thapa scored his first goal of this season’s ISL against NorthEast United FC in the last match. – ISL
The ISL will be open to fans for the first time in two years for the final on March 20. How difficult has it been to play without fans?
I think many teams have been affected due to the lack of home support and missed playing in their home ground. But next season, hopefully, fans will be allowed. Everyone will be excited about it. The players want the fans to come, chant and support the team. It is a completely different feeling. We all miss the fans a lot and want that feeling back.
Chennaiyin plays ATK Mohun Bagan in its last game of the season. How is interim coach Sabir Pasha keeping the morale high, considering the season is over for you guys?
It has been a difficult season, and many players haven’t had a chance to prove their worth. So we might give a chance to a few of those players. We know that our season has ended and we need to start looking forward to the next one. We need to see which players fit in and whether they can perform or not. For example, Jobby ‘bhai’ [Jobby Justin] started the last match [against Kerala Blasters FC] and played quite well. So, that is something, coach Pasha is thinking. But we also need to give a tough fight because we know that ATK Mohun Bagan is fighting for the top four, and it won’t be an easy game.
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You’ll have a short break after the season before joining the national team camp at the end of the month. Have you been in touch with coach Igor Stimac during the season?
Yes, he used to message and give his regards at times. He emphasised the matches ahead and how important they will be. There will be a break of around a week after the season, after which there is the national camp and we know how important that is. We are excited about it because we will play some friendlies before the qualifiers [AFC Asian Cup]. It will help us in terms of experience, settling down and adapting. It won’t be easy to adapt to a different setup after such a long gap, but I am positive and excited about playing with my friends and national teammates.
This ISL season has seen the highest number of Indian goalscorers in the history of the competition. This means more competition in the national team. Does the tough competition push you to be a better player?
This is healthy competition. More Indian players are coming up so the competition is natural. However, this is good for Indian football because we need players who can help the national team, especially in scoring goals. This season we have seen a lot of Indian players who have made their mark in the ISL, and when they grow, the national team grows. We all want to do better in our national colours.