I-League title: Check. Federation Cup win: Check. Helping India win a tournament by scoring in the final: Check. Winning the Indian Super League: Check. Winning a match for India by scoring on foreign soil: Check. You wouldn’t be wide of the mark if you thought good things happen to Jeje Lalpekhlua.
But one of the boxes this stocky striker from Mizoram hasn’t yet ticked is scoring in a Kolkata derby, a match that despite assertions on Saturday from Mohun Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen and his East Bengal counterpart Trevor Morgan matters more to those who play in it. After all, this is a rivalry that is nearly two decades older than the Howrah Bridge, has featured in the list of world’s top derbies and been written about by Fifa.
Contrast that with East Bengal striker Robin Singh who has scored five goals in six derbies but who has had disciplinary issues and seen his India career set back by injury. Both are 26.
Lalpekhlua came close to doing it when he stepped up to take a penalty here last April. Mohun Bagan were trailing 1-2 and on that kick hinged their chances of winning the I-League in successive years. But he missed and Lalpekhlua hasn’t taken a penalty since.
“If he is thinking about the missed penalty, he will make it hard for himself. He needs to tell himself that it’s a new beginning, a new match. He has the experience of playing many matches so that shouldn’t be a problem,” former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia told HT over the phone from New Delhi.
Bhutia, who has scored a hattrick in a derby in 1997, also shared what it means to get your name on the scoresheet in a Mohun Bagan-East Bengal match.
“As a striker you always want to score and all goals are special. But scoring one in a derby gives you a different kind of satisfaction. That’s because the love and affection you get from the fans stays with you long after the game is done,” he said.
Singh has scored twice in five games in the 10th I-League. Lalpekhlua has four from as many. A fifth on Sunday would go a long way in making Hnahtial in Mizoram a household name just like Tinkitam, which Bhutia calls home, is.