Indian football head coach Stephen Constantine has a major headache and it’s not just because his strikers aren’t playing or aren’t scoring in the Indian Super League. It is because the only India striker who was scoring has now been ruled out of a friendly against Jordan through injury.
For fans of the Indian national team, it has almost become synonymous to see the name Chhetri and the word ‘goal’ next to it. Take the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai for example, where Chhetri scored eight of India’s 11 goals.
The Bengaluru FC captain has scored four goals in this year’s ISL. Of the other Indian strikers, only CK Vineeth has more than one goal.
Dial B for Balwant
Balwant Singh is the most obvious replacement for Chhetri. Well, almost obvious given that Constantine fancies Messrs Farukh Choudhary and Sumeet Passi.
The saga of Balwant and the national team is a long one, in which he has flitted in and out of favour. Given his tendency to run beyond the defence and use space wisely, the ATK man should be partnering Jeje Lalpekhlua up front. Wisdom dictated that the two wily strikers would function together effectively.
However, Lalpekhlua’s form hasn’t been the greatest this season and his combination play with Balwant – last witnessed during the match against the Kyrgyz Republic earlier this year – was flat. Halicharan Narzary’s cross meant that Jeje bagged a goal in the dying minutes, but the two senior men up front failed to link up.
Given Jeje’s struggles in front of goal, the Jordan match would be Balwant’s audition for a back-up role for the AFC Asian Cup next year.
Manvir Singh, the heir apparent?
Balwant turns 32 in December. Chhetri celebrated his 34th birthday three months ago. Jeje’s legs seemed to have turned into lead at 27, fast approaching 28. In such a scenario, someone will have to step up against Jordan and after the Asian Cup.
That man might well be Manvir Singh. Only 23, there are pros and cons to Manvir’s stint at FC Goa. While arguably learning from the best attacker, Coro, and the best attacking coach, Sergio Lobera, the former’s remarkable league-scoring record has ensured that Manvir had to settle for a place on the bench more often than not.
Last season yielded 266 minutes. This season, 112 minutes have produced a goal and an assist. Yet, when given the chance as his brace against Pakistan in the SAFF semi-final proved, Manvir is more than capable of seizing the opportunity. He needs to get more regular game-time to do so.
Udanta, Ashique and Narzary need to step up
It is highly likely that Narzary and Udanta Singh will start on either flank, with Ashique Kuruniyan entering the fray as a substitute possibly.
Bengaluru FC man Udanta was anonymous against China and he hasn’t grabbed a goal or an assist in five club games this season. Last season’s highest-assist maker must now show more consistency. The pace has always been there for everyone to see, but the end product not so much.
Kuruniyan has shown fight despite Pune City’s disastrous season and he is neck and neck with Narzary for that left-wing spot. He is also one of the few attackers that does a fair share of game-time in the ISL and his left foot makes him as invaluable to the national team as Narzary.
Kerala Blasters man Narzary started the season well, but tapered off. What swings this debate in his favour is the fact Constantine prefers him due to his industriousness in tracking back and helping out the left-back.
A few positives maybe?
It’s a good conundrum for Constantine and India to have, leading up to the Asian Cup. Over-reliance on Gurpreet Sandhu and Chhetri has often masked deficiencies in other team-members and this is an opportunity to study what the attackers do sans the latter.
While India would have the services of Chhetri in UAE, the others will have to pull up their socks in order to stand a chance of qualifying out of the group. That makes Jordan the perfect litmus test for Constantine’s front three to present their cases for that ticket to the Asian Cup.