Sunil Chhetri continues to be the talisman of the national football team, producing an incredible performance that helped India brush aside higher-ranked Puerto Rico 4-1 in Mumbai on Saturday.
Chhetri, who had handed the captain’s armband to goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, was involved in three of India’s goals, all scored in the first half at the Andheri Sports Complex.
He extended his tally as India’s top-scorer by converting a free-kick in the 23rd minute, either side of setting up goals for Narayan Das (17th min) and Jeje Lalpekhlua (34th min).
Puerto Rico, who landed in Mumbai at 5pm on Friday and held their only training session three hours later, however, started on the front foot and took the lead in the seventh minute. Jackichand Singh conceded a penalty which Emmanuel Sanchez converted.
But once Das equalised, pouncing on a loose ball after a free-kick from Chhetri came off the post, it was all one-way traffic.
Most of the Indian attacks came from the left wing as the home team capitalised on their superior pace while the Puerto Ricans, ranked 38 spots above India, began to tire.
Chhetri scored six minutes after Das had by converting his second free-kick, once again striking the bar but this time the ball crawled into the goal.
India kept up the pressure through the second half, occasionally switching play to attack from the right wing. One such move saw Eugeneson Lyngdoh cross to Chhetri, who headed into the path of Jeje to nod home.
The second half saw both teams ease off. India wrapped up the match with a fourth as Jackichand tapped in a header across goal in the 58th minute. Head coach Stephen Constantine praised scorer Chhetri, calling him the “talisman of the Indian team”.
“A player of his calibre, you have to find a place for him. I think for me, his place is behind the striker. He brings other people into the game. He has an eye for goal, he sees good passes and he works,” the coach said about experimenting with Chhetri’s position in other matches.
“For me personally, he is best played behind the striker. Sometimes we may need him to play left or right.”
Bringing in new faces
That Indian football is in a state of transition was confirmed by Constantine and many senior internationals. Since taking over 18 months ago, he has given 30 players their India debut. Against Puerto Rico, Germanpreet Singh and Daniel Lalhimpuia came on in the second half to wear the Blue Tigers jersey for the first time in an official match.
On Friday, Constantine had said senior players who weren’t working hard enough would be excluded.
“There are one or two players who are not here for A, B or C reasons. They didn’t do enough or they were injured,” he said after the match.
“We have tried to make a pool of players where in every position it is a bit of a headache (to choose who to play). We have a squad for the next five-six years from these boys.”