Sunil Chhetri’s goals make the difference for the Indian football team again. Not for the first time and the way the 37-year-old is going, definitely not for the last time.
Against Maldives, with the scores tied at 1-1 in a must-win game for India, Chhetri stepped up and scored two goals. India weren’t exactly dominating the game; Maldives were tenacious, cheered on by their passionate fans. The pressure was on and like he does almost all the time, Chhetri delivered.
Chhetri has now scored in nine out of India’s last ten victories in all competitions excluding the 2018 SAFF Championship results where India had sent an U-23 team.
For Indian football fans, this astonishing consistency is great to watch but also brings with it a very uncomfortable question. What will happen when Chhetri will stop playing? Who will score these goals once Chhetri retires?
The quest for the next Chhetri in Indian football has yielded precious few results. It’s not a big surprise considering where the Benagluru FC skipper stands among the Indian greats
India have had great strikers in the past. Extremely skilled and talented and with great records as well. But Chhetri has outshone them all. His 79 goals are much higher than the combined tally of IM Vijayan and Bhaichung Bhutia, who have 58 goals international goals among them and are the next in the list of India’s all-time leading goalscorers.
The current Indian captain also has a significantly higher goals to game ratio. He averages 0.63 goals per game compared to Vijayan’s 0.46 goals per game and Bhutia’s tally of 0.33.
In fact, among Indian footballers who have played more than 10 times for India, only Neville D’Souza has a better goals per game ratio than Chhetri but he only played 11 times. The consistency with which he has kept on scoring is just staggering.
The comparisons of his international goal tally with that of Lionel Messi may not be fair in many ways, but the sheer number of those goals (79) that now puts him joint sixth in the all-time list in men’s international football is an extraordinary feat. Indian football has no right to have anyone of its own there, but Chhetri is... somehow having emerged from the same ecosystem that isn’t representative of his quality. He is an absolute outlier and provides an enhanced projection of India’s ability to produce players of a certain quality.
While he has set the benchmark for the youngsters to follow, they may struggle to get there.
The match against Maldives was a case in point. It was chaotic from minute one to last. Neither team had full control of the game and the seven yellow cards that were dished out during the match tell a story.
The first half was a perfect reflection of the game where both teams had capitalised on one of the many mistakes they were making on the field.
The second half was the same. It was either muddled in midfield or it was an end-to-end game. Neither India nor Maldives had any spell of sustained pressure. These are the kind of games that are won and lost on moments and that’s where Chhetri made the difference.
And it’s not just his finishing but a combination of great positional sense and clever movement that does the trick. For the first goal, Chhetri had positioned himself in the pocket of space where there was no Maldives defender. Having received the layoff from Manvir Singh, he had the skill and composure to keep a half volley on goal. During the match, at both ends, many players attempted similar shots albeit from different angles and distance but none connected. Chhetri did.
The third goal was just class. Maldives defence had no answer to his clever movement across the defensive line but the great skill was to direct the cross from the free-kick goalwards from almost the edge of the box. The goal was far and Chhetri literally had one spot through which he could beat the goalkeeper from that angle and distance... and he found that with perfection.
In a game that lacked quality and most importantly composure, Chhetri showed he is a class above the rest.
His goals gave the scoreline a bit of a sheen, but the performance was probably not as good. India had little control on the game against a team they’d expect to dominate. India had done that against teams that were happy to sit back and let them have the ball, but struggled against teams that hurried them while on the ball. It was a similar story against Bangladesh.
Chhetri’s goal that day earned them a point and against Maldives it gave them all three. But across the four games, the Blue Tigers’ performances left a lot to be desired.
The Indian captain’s goals will mask these problems that the team has been facing under coach Igor Stimac untill better opponents expose it despite the Chhetri factor at play.
The only positive is that wins build confidence and it’s extremely important for India to have that ahead of the AFC Asian Cup qualifying campaign. Whether that leads to an improvement in performances remains to be seen and if not, India’s results will once again depend on how good a day Sunil Chhetri is having.