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Chennaiyin continue doing the impossible by making ISL playoffs

As Lucian Goian saw the ball skim off the top of a head in the crowded Mumbai City penalty area and hurtle toward him, he must surely have known it - connect properly, and his team would win this. Connect properly, and Chennaiyin FC would be in the playoffs of the Indian Super League (ISL).

Up until that point, Goian, a hulking, slightly bumbling centre-back, had scored a grand total of 11 goals in 362 appearances spread across 16 years of professional football. Neither should he have been there, lurking in prime poacher territory, nor should he have been able to find the timing, the technique, the calmness to score. Yet, he was, and he did. On a tense Friday night, against the side for whom he had been a cult hero for the last three seasons, Goian made it 12 in 363.

Goian's first goal in almost exactly two years -- he last scored on February 22, 2018 -- was enough for Chennaiyin to earn a near-miraculous berth in this season's playoffs. You see, they -- like their centre-back -- really shouldn't even have been in a position to be able to do this.

After a disastrous start under a manager who barely seemed to want the job, they found themselves near the bottom of the table a third of the way into the league. They had scored just four goals, conceded 10, and won just once in six matches before Chennaiyin finally decided to part ways with John Gregory. In came Owen Coyle to take his place.

The Coyle era began with a draw, a win and two losses. In the past 11 seasons, he had managed a team that scored more than it conceded only twice. The last time one of his teams averaged more than a point per game was in 2015. Given that track record, and given that start, he really shouldn't have been able to take Chennaiyin to the playoffs.

Over the next six games, however, they set about defying expectations. They scored a stunning 18 goals and conceded just five. They won five of those six games, the solitary blip coming in a draw against defending champions Bengaluru FC. They were irrepressible. On the surface, it appeared Coyle had made just a few minor tweaks to the system Gregory had employed so unsuccessfully, but the results were immense. The same footballers who could barely hit a barn door from five yards at the start of the season were now scoring for fun. The goals -- from great goals and ugly goals to counter-attacking goals and team goals -- kept flowing in.

Playing a standard 4-2-3-1, Coyle moved right-back-by-trade Edwin Vanspaul infield to partner Anirudh Thapa in the middle behind a fluid, fast front four of Lallianzuala Chhangte, Rafael Crivallero, Andre Schmerbi, and Nerijus Valskis. Mental shackles shaken off, confidence coursing through them, they became a stunning attacking unit. Thapa and Vanspaul provided a uniquely-solid-yet-dynamic base, Chhangte the aggressive directness, Crivallero the magic, Schmerbi the balance and Valskis the goals.

There were some remarkable performances along the way - taking apart Jamshedpur 4-1, smashing Kerala by that tennis-score-like 6-3 away, dismantling the title hopes of ATK with a 3-1 win at Kolkata. As they steamrolled their way up the table, they were the form team. In that six-game stretch from games 11-16, no one, not even Goa FC, those madcap entertainers from the Fatorda, scored more goals, or won more points.

That Chennaiyin weren't just winning games, but were doing so in such extraordinary fashion took the breath away. You could call it new-manager bounce, but that doesn't truly explain it. There was something else to it.

In those six matches, Chennaiyin played like they had nothing to lose, and it worked, clearly. But Mumbai was different. Going into the match, a virtual knockout, the pressure was as much on them as it was on their hosts -- they were no longer underdogs. New-manager bounce would not have been enough.

In a game that lacked any semblance of poise, control, or cohesion, best exemplified by a 90-second spell that began with Chennaiyin goalkeeper Vishal Kaith escaping a sure-fire red card and ended with Mumbai's Sourav Das getting a sure-fire one, Chennaiyin dug deep to get the result they needed. It was their first clean sheet away from home all season.

As Goian crashed that volley, seemingly through Amrinder Singh in the Mumbai goal rather than past him, the gnawing doubts about the manager's role in this turnaround disappeared. Not only could Chennaiyin smash their way past opponents, they could grind their way past one too. This result, after this performance, was important. And now, glory is within reach.

Having been parachuted into the middle of what looked like a written-off season, Coyle has taken Chennaiyin to the playoffs with a game to spare. He's done so in a way that's put the "bloody hell" right back in that joyous quote of a famous compatriot of his -- "Football, bloody hell!"

Who would bet, now, against his team going all the way?

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