After a draw and a defeat in their opening two matches, defending champions Chennaiyin FC finally produced a performance worthy of their title, brushing aside FC Goa 2-0.
Goals from Hans Mulder and Mehrajuddin Wadoo in the first half handed the hosts a comfortable victory, while Goa were left licking their wounds at the end of a third deflating defeat which, even at this early stage, has dented their prospects of making the playoffs.
The last time these two teams met was in the 2015 final, a manic thriller. This contest was anything but, as the result was ultimately decided by the two managers' tactics.
Marco Materazzi shuffled his pack and made five bold changes to the side that lost at home to Delhi Dynamos, leaving out the likes of regular captain Bernard Mendy, Dudu Omagbemi, and Jeje Lalpekhlua. On the other hand, Goa's head coach Zico made just one change to the jaded XI that was defeated by a late FC Pune City goal.
More crucially, Materazzi flicked on the midfield switch to activate the 4-3-3 diamond, while Zico persisted with a dysfunctional 4-4-2, meaning the hosts had the advantage at the center.
Chennaiyin made that advantage count, as Hans Mulder, Manuele Blasi and Raphael Augusto passed circles around the Goa players, who were often left chasing shadows. Ably supported by energetic runners up front in Davide Succi and Jayesh Rane, Augusto had both the space and the time he needed to run the game, and he did so with effortless ease.
With the Goa defenders pushing back deeper and deeper, they were inviting a siege on their goal, and Chennaiyin obliged. Augusto, who made 39 successful passes in the first half alone, picked out Mulder near the edge of the box, and the Dutch midfielder did brilliantly to bend the ball past Laxmikant Kattimani's desperate dive.
A deserved lead in their pocket, Chennaiyin grew in confidence, as their control over the midfield enticed even the full-backs Mehrajuddin Wadoo and Jerry Lalrinzuala to bomb forward at will, safe in the knowledge that Blasi was on hand to sniff out any possible Goa attack.
Goa have been well below-par in all their games this season, but they were completely bereft of passion and confidence at the Jawaharal Nehru Stadium. Chennaiyin were fluent, but Goa were not making it easy for themselves; their defence was in tatters, midfield disjointed, and attack lacking confidence.
Rafael Coelho's radar, in particular, was well off. In the 20th minute, he was played through by Jofre Gonzalez, but didn't even bother to look up, instead just snatching wildly at goal. In the 35th, he had a free header at goal, but didn't even get Sahil Tavora's floated cross on target. Even Wadoo tried his best to gift Coelho a goal, playing a wayward back pass, but the Brazilian striker was determined not to accept the present, shooting wide with only the keeper to beat.
At the other end, it seemed only a matter of time before a second Chennaiyin goal, with the hosts creating small triangles and making pockets of space for themselves. Wadoo, the stand-in captain, speculatively pulled the trigger from the right, and his shot-cross from distance caught a wicked deflection off Rafael Dumas before nestling in the back of the net.
It was that kind of game. Anything that could go wrong for Goa, went spectacularly wrong. Anything that could go right for Chennaiyin, went spectacularly right.
Goa's first half could be summed up by the image of a frustrated, feisty Joffre furiously yelling at his team-mates for not pressing the Chennaiyin midfield.
Going into the break with a healthy 2-0 lead afforded Chennaiyin the comfort of sitting back and playing on the counter in the second half. With Goa forced to come at them, Chennaiyin were presented with numerous three-on-two opportunities to add the cherry on an already delicious cake.
Baljit Sahni came closest to rounding off the scoring after being fed through by a lovely turn and pass from Mulder, but his drilled effort only troubled the side netting.
With Chennaiyin's midfielders and attackers having already earned their stripes in the first half, it was next time for the defenders to get a solid workout. Goa had plenty of the ball in the second half, but created little with their sterile possession, as Chennaiyin's centre-backs Eli Sabia and John Arne Riise easily cleaned up everything hurled their way.
Mulder, whose engine was on full throttle for the whole 90 minutes, sometimes even slotted in as a third centre-back, and capped off a Man-of-the-Match performance with an inch-perfect sliding challenge near the end to steal the ball from Brazilian striker Reinaldo.
Mulder casually walked away from the tackle and ran ahead to start another attack, while the Goa players, as they did most of the game, chased him with their arms on their heads.