India international Jeje Lalpekhlua finally returned to the starting line-up in Chennaiyin’s 4-2 victory over Pune City at the Balewadi Stadium.

The recall to the starting line up might have come as a relief for the Mizo sniper but his performance won’t bring any solace to either Chennaiyin gaffer John Gregory or the head coach of the Indian national team, Stephen Constantine.

In his 91 minutes on the pitch, Jeje completed 31 passes and had two shots, both of which were on target, and was caught offside twice. The second led to Thoi Singh slotting in the rebound, but none the less, it was far from a vintage Jeje performance.

Jeje's 2017-'18 and 2018-'19 ISL seasons

2017-'18 season 2018-'19 season
Minutes 1704 301
Matches 20 7
Goals 9 0
Shots 33 3
Crosses 3 1
Passes 532 74
Minutes/Pass 3.2 4.07
Minutes/Goal 189.33 N/A
Minutes/Shot 51.64 100.33
Minutes/Match 85.2 43
Goal Conversion Rate 27 0

The goal secured the defending champions there first win in this edition of the league but the lack of goals from the strikers, especially Jeje is still a worrying factor for the team.

In fact, Carlos Salom, the Palestine striker is the only one of the Chennaiyin forwards to score a goal this season. This is in sharp contrast with last season where Jeje scored nine goals for Chennaiyin, thus becoming the first Indian top scorer for a title winning side.

While it may be argued that Jeje hasn’t received the same service as last year, the man from Hnahthial has gone off the boil, his reflexes, his decision making and his speed on the ball drastically reducing from the 2017-’18 season.

It would be a fallacy to just quote the Indian Super League’s statistics. In India’s match against China, he led the line for Constantine’s men in a 0-0 draw against the neighbours. India, as a whole, failed to muster many clear-cut chances and thus Jeje cannot be blamed alone for the lack of potency in attack.

However, when he did have the ball, Jeje lost it one too many times and failed to link up with the others in attack.

While ISL commentators have praised Jeje as a forward ‘whose contribution to the team is more than just goals’, his main job at both Chennaiyin and the Indian national team is to put the ball in the back of the net and other responsibilities are definitely secondary.

Jeje’s drop in form is also a reason for concern because this was a man who was supposed to take over the responsibility of goal-scoring from Sunil Chhetri in the national set up. His nine goals were second among the Indians to Chhetri’s 26, but the 17-goal gulf is symptomatic of the over-reliance on the Bengaluru striker.

Instead with India’s biggest tournament appearance — Asian Cup — in eight years merely two months away, Jeje’s steadily declining performances, has failed to convince Gregory to start him regularly, dropping to the bench for four of Chennaiyin’s seven games.

Other Indian forwards in the ISL (2018-'19)

Forward Minutes Goals
Sunil Chhetri (Bengaluru) 450 4
Balwant Singh (ATK) 497 1
CK Vineeth (Kerala Blasters) 426 2
Alen Deory (Mumbai City) 284 0
Sumeet Passi (Jamshedpur) 261 1
Robin Singh (Pune City) 243 0
Nikhil Poojari (Pune City) 177 0
Gourav Mukhi (Jamshedpur) 172 1
Farukh Choudhary (Jamshedpur) 169 1
Daniel Lalhlimpuia (Delhi Dynamos) 159 0
Pranjal Bhumij (Mumbai City) 113 1
Jakob Vanlalhlimpuia (Pune City) 88 0
Manvir Singh (Goa) 55 0
Liston Colaco (Goa) 17 0
Seiminmang Manchong (Delhi Dynamos)
8 0
Semboi Haokip (Bengaluru) 7 0
Mohammed Rafi (Chennaiyin) 6 0

Of all the forwards selected by Constantine for the friendly against Jordan, it is worth noting that only Balwant Singh and Chhetri get regular game-time at their clubs.

Out of the six – Chhetri, Jeje, Balwant, Sumeet Passi, Farukh Choudhary and Manvir Singh – only Chhetri has more than one goal to his name this season. Kerala Blasters’ CK Vineeth, who has two and has looked like a genuine threat to backlines this season, has been ignored.

The likes of Passi, Farukh and Manvir are second-choice at Jamshedpur and Goa with head coaches Cesar Ferrando and Sergio Lobera preferring foreign recruits. But this is hardly a new problem.

Last season, Manvir played 266 minutes at Goa while Passi managed only 136 minutes for Jamshedpur. Choudhary managed the highest of the three, 781 minutes, still less than half of his team’s total game-time. The three among themselves bagged no goals and no assists last season.

Jeje’s situation is hardly an ideal one for Constantine but with the Asian Cup less than two months away, the Indian attack’s situation is dire. It is increasingly becoming tough to argue that deserving forwards have been left out of the squad.

Excluding the SAFF Cup where India sent an Under-23 squad resting Chhetri, Balwant and Lalpekhlua, the Blue Tigers have scored 12 goals in all national teams matches in 2018. Chhetri has bagged eight of those. There is a growing suspicion that one Chhetri might not be enough against Thailand, Bahrain and UAE come January.