After two damaging draws against Bangladesh (at home) and Afghanistan (away), Indian senior men’s national football team’s World Cup dream seems as far-fetched as ever. Without a win so far in their 2022 Fifa World Cup preliminary qualifying round campaign, India are currently on course to miss out on a place in the second round of Asian qualifiers for the next World Cup yet again.

Placed in a tricky group alongside Asian champions Qatar, Oman, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, the Blue Tigers have drawn three and lost one of their four games. Defensively, the team has looked fairly solid conceding just four goals in as many games, but their real problem has been at the other end where they have found the net just three times.

India struggled to break down the organised defences of Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the last two games, needing goals in the dying minutes to salvage a point.

Igor Stimac, who has prided on playing possession-based football that is a shift from the direct approach adopted by former coach Stephen Constantine, has seen his side fail to score from open play in the qualifiers so far.

This predicament is largely down to the excess burden of goal-scoring on Indian captain Sunil Chhetri who has shouldered the responsibility quite well in the past few years.

However, the dearth of Indian goalscorers in the Indian Super League, now officially the country’s premier football competition, paints a worrisome picture for the future as Chhetri approaches the twilight of his career.

The sixth season of ISL has entered a new era after being declared the main league tournament in the country but, four matches into the season for all teams, there is a worrying trend emerging.

In the league season so far, there is just one Indian goalscorer among the top ten. Redeem Tlang of NorthEast United who has scored two goals this campaign leads the way but, incidentally, he is not a part of the national squad.

Among the top 20, there are just five Indian goalscorers, with only one – Seiminlen Doungel – being part of the national squad.

These numbers clearly show that India’s current preferred attackers are struggling in front of the goal domestically as well.

Top twenty goalscorers in ISL (2019-20)

Position Player Matches  Goals
1 Roy Krishna (ATK) 4 3
2 Sergio Castel (Jamshedpur) 4 3
3 Edu Garcia (ATK) 4 3
4 Ferran Corominas (Goa) 4 3
5 Adriane Santana (Odisha) 4 3
6 David Williams (ATK) 4 3
7 Hugo Boumous (Goa) 2 2
8 Bartholomew Ogbeche (Kerala) 4 2
9 Redeem Tlang (NorthEast United) 4 2
10 Marcelinho (Hyderabad) 4 2
11 Xisco (Odisha) 4 2
12 Asamoah Gyan (NorthEast United) 4 2
13 Carlos Pena (Goa) 4 2
14 Erik Paartalu (Bengaluru) 1 1
15 Semboi Haokip (Bengaluru) 2 1
16 Rahul KP (Kerala) 3 1
17 Bipin Singh (Mumbai) 3 1
18 Seiminlen Doungel (Goa) 3 1
19 Souvik Chakraborty (Mumbai) 3 1
20 Amine Chermiti (Mumbai) 4 1
Players in bold are Indian goalscorers

Expanding the perspective, if you look at the all-time statistics for goal-scoring in the ISL, no other forwards apart from Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua have been among the goals consistently, raising doubts on Indian football’s ability to produce quality strikers.

In the all-time list, there are only four Indian goalscorers in the top 20. Apart from Jeje and Chhetri, the other two players are CK Vineeth and Robin Singh who have struggled in the last few campaigns and have dropped out of the national reckoning.

With Jeje injured, and Chhetri going through a sticky spell, it comes as little surprise that the Indian football team have struggled to score goals.

Clearly, India desperately need a striker that can take over from Chhetri (when the time comes) as the team’s leading goalscorer.

Top ten goalscorers in ISL (All-time)

Position Player Matches Goals
1 Ferran Corominas  44 37
2 Sunil Chhetri  61 31
3 Iain Hume  69 28
4 Marcelinho 50 26
5 Jeje Lalpekhlua 69 23
6 Miku 32 20
7 Manuel Lanzarote 33 18
8 Kalu Uche 37 18
9 John Stiven Mendoza 25 17
10 Emiliano Alfaro 38 15

The dearth of Indian scorers is also down to coaches preferring foreign players in key attacking roles like the center-forward position. This season, only Manvir Singh of FC Goa has featured in the No 9 role. However, it’s an experiment that coach Sergio Lobera has cut short, putting Ferran Corominas back up top in the last two matches.

The preference of foreign players in key scoring areas is also reflected by the low number of shots forced on target by Indian players. Only three Indians feature in the top ten players having the most number of shots on target this season as they simply fail to get into scoring positions.

All three players on the list are wide players who like to drift inside the field. There is no out-and-out Indian striker.

Position Player Matches Shots on target
1 Ferran Corominas (Goa) 4 7
2 Lallianzuala Chhangte (Chennaiyin) 4 6
3 Farukh Choudhary (Jamshedpur) 4 5
4 Asamoah Gyan (NorthEast United) 4 5
5 Piti (Jamshedpur) 4 5
6 David Williams (ATK) 4 5
7 Redeem Tlang (NorthEast United) 4 4
8 Roy Krishna (ATK) 4 4
9 Sergio Castel (Jamshedpur) 4 4
10 Marcelinho (Hyderabad) 4 4

Farukh, who came on as a second half substitute against Afghanistan and put in a lively shift, has impressed for Jamshedpur FC, being at the heart of many of their goals. But in terms of scoring, he has been able to find the net just once from five shots on goal.

However Ashique Kuruniyan, India’s other emerging candidate for the striker’s role, is being used as a left-back by Bengaluru FC coach Carles Cuadrat, further hampering India’s chances of churning out a goalscorer.

Despite the reduction in the number of foreign players allowed in an ISL starting XI from six to five, coaches have continued to trust foreign players in the striker’s role. Indians have occupied key positions like the center-back and midfield roles, but there hasn’t been enough talent coming through that would prompt the coaches of the ISL teams to trust them as their chief marksman.

Recently, former captain Baichung Bhutia on Thursday raised concerns about the Indian football team’s goal-scoring dependency on Chhetri.

“Once Sunil (Chhetri) leaves we don’t have anybody who can score goals. When Sunil is not able to score there is nobody else who can score. There is no one who can do even half of what Sunil is doing,” he was quoted as saying by The Times of India.

With the 2019-20 season offering no positives so far on this front, Igor Stimac is sure to have his task cut out to get goals out of the national team in the matches to come. As it has been for years, Indian attack is all but Sunil Chhetri.