Indian Super League (ISL) outfit Chennaiyin FC (CFC) defeated Nepal’s Manang Marshyangdi Club 3-2 in the final AFC Cup Group E game at the ANFA Complex here on Wednesday but failed to qualify for the knockout stage. A brace from striker Mohammed Rafi and a solo goal from defender Eli Sabia proved to be 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 went through after beating Minerva Punjab 1-0 in the other group game in Guwahati. Abahani progress to the inter-zone semifinals 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.
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. Chennaiyin had the half’s best chance to open the scoring when 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, but 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 Rafi to head it past the keeper’s reach and give CFC a valuable one-goal lead.
Chennaiyin’s second came 10 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. 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 10 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 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.