"Pressure is a privilege."
Csaba Laszlo may have only taken over as chief coach of Chennaiyin FC a couple of months ago, but he's aware of the expectations on his side every time they step out onto the field in an Indian Super League (ISL) season.
It's clear the 56-year-old from Hungary is familiar with his history. If Chennaiyin are to be approaching any season with the expectation of winning, it's not because their side features any of Indian football's heavyweight marquees. It doesn't claim to be part of an epic rivalry like the two most recent ISL signings from Bengal. Nor does it command the sort of manic fan following of the club from neighbouring Kerala.
What Chennaiyin does have, though, is a winning habit. In the six editions held since the ISL began in 2014, the Chennai-based club have won the title twice and finished runners-up another two times. They even managed to find a way to reach the final last season, even in the most dire of circumstances after they won just one of their first six games and then saw the coach from their championship-winning previous season throw in the towel himself.
That state of flux has persisted.
Owen Coyle, their coach of less than one season and mastermind of that spectacular resurgence last season, headed out to Jamshedpur and a number of players who made the core of the side have scattered as well. Lithuanian striker Nerijus Valskis , who led the charts with 15 goals last season, is gone as well. That's something that's bound to leave a mark. But you'd be mistaken if you think Laszlo will be setting his sights a little more modestly at this point. "It is a privilege to coach one of the most successful team(s) in India. Even this year, we first want to play in the top four. Then after that, get to the top two. The expectation, however, is always to win the title," he says.
It's going to be a tough ask, but Laszlo is no stranger to pulling them off. He's been named coach of the year in two separate countries (Hungary in 2003 for taking Ferencvárosi TC to the Europa League and in Scotland in 2008 for taking Heart of Midlothian to third place in the Premier league). But the seminal moment in his career was probably his two-year tenure as coach of the Uganda national team between 2006 and 2008. In that time, Laszlo guided the side to their highest world ranking of 91, from 181, while also picking up wins over giants Nigeria and Angola.
Throughout Laszlo's career, what's always stood out has been an ability to do more with less, as well as a knack for recognising and pushing young talent to the front. "They're more eager to prove themselves and they can push themselves and recover faster than if they were older. I've always been clear. One of the reasons for working with Chennaiyin was because they shared my vision which was that it was important for me to work with young talented players. Chennaiyin also had the same vision," he says. Indeed, the Indian component of the squad is among the most youthful with 12 players under the age of 25. Of them, winger Lallianzuala Chhangte has already clocked the most minutes on field by any U-23 player currently in the ISL.
One player Laszlo and Chennaiyin will have high hopes from is midfielder Anirudh Thapa. Laszlo expects the 22-year-old, who is already an established player for India (24 caps) and Chennaiyin (54 games over three seasons), to stamp his authority over the next few weeks. "From what I've seen of him, he's a little quiet on the pitch. He needs to be more expressive on the field. He has the ability to be a very good player," Laszlo says.
While Laszlo might have long-term plans, he knows well enough that banking on young Indian players -- honourable as it might be -- is unlikely to be enough to take his side to the stages of the tournament it has grown accustomed to.
The departure of players during the transfer season has meant there are holes both in the front and back of the pitch that have had to be plugged. A critical buy has been that of Slovakian forward Jakub Sylvestr in place of last season's leading goalscorer Valskis. Chennaiyin's success has in no small part come thanks to the roles of their firepower up front -- players from the club have been the leading goalscorers for three of the six editions of the ISL. As such, Chennaiyin's prospects will be swung significantly by the form of Sylvestr, who joins on a one-year deal on the back of some impressive stints in Europe, including time at FC Nurnberg and Dinamo Zagreb and credible performances that saw him winning the Bundesliga second division's top-scorer award, when he scored 15 goals for Erzgebirge Aue in 2014.
Much will also depend on how Chennaiyin's defence shapes up. The loss of former captain Lucian Goian is a major jolt considering the backline was already unsteady -- conceding 26 goals, the most of any team in the top four -- last season. Bosnian centre-back Enes Sipovic will be expected to act as a direct replacement, while Brazilian Eli Sabia, who partnered Goian last season, will have to shoulder the additional burden on the backline. The early signs aren't particularly good though, as 1-0 and 3-0 defeats to Mumbai City FC and FC Goa respectively, albeit in pre-season friendlies, suggested that defensive frailties aren't entirely a thing of the past.
If there's one part of the pitch map Laszlo will be able to look at with some sort of surety, it would be in the middle. Thapa will be expected to improve further, which will only strengthen his partnership with Rafael Crivellaro. The duo are coming off an excellent season, providing a combined 14 assists between them. And with Lallianzuala Chhangte and Tajikistan import Fatkhullo Fatkhulloev on the wings, Thapa might even find himself with the opportunity of playing with the kind of freedom Laszlo expects of him.
Chennaiyin will hope things go to plan and the side lives up to the expectations they have created for themselves. But there is a bit of history Laszlo will hope doesn't repeat itself. That's his own. Over a nearly two-decade-long coaching stint, the Hungarian has seen his sides punch above their weight on multiple occasions, but never landed the knockout blow. "What I'm missing in my career is a trophy. I've never won it. With Chennaiyin, I'm hoping to get the side to the top four, then maybe the top two and then maybe all the way," he says.