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Reformed Chhetri owes it to coach

The diminutive striker, who scored a hattrick in the AFC Challenge Cup final, says Houghton helped him transform from an individual player to a team man, reports Abhijeet Kulkarni.

sports Updated: Aug 14, 2008 23:01 IST
Abhijeet Kulkarni

Sunil Chhetri walked back dejected to the dressing room during the lemon break of the AFC Challenge Cup semifinal against Myanmar. The diminutive striker had missed a sitter a minute ago and knew the error could cost his team a place in the final.

Eight minutes from the final hooter, it seemed the East Bengal striker had spurned another opportunity when he failed to connect to a Bhaichung Bhutia cross.

Undaunted by the mistake, Chhetri charged for a header once again and nodded the ball home with the goalkeeper's boots inches away from his face.

The Delhi boy gave enough proof that he could be the future of Indian football by scoring a hattrick in the final over Tajikistan.

Said coach, Bob Houghton, "He spend 81 minutes of the semifinal under pressure and then scored four times in the next 100 minutes. That speaks volumes of his quality."

But three years ago, pundits were sceptical about the youngster's ability, who shifted to JCT after an unimpressive sting with Mohun Bagan. The move turned out to be a masterstroke and did a world of good to his confidence.

Chhetri made a mark during his three-year stay with the former National Football League champions and was named AIFF Player of the Year in 2007.

Ever since he got his first break in the national squad for the last group game against Iran at the Busan Asian Games, the striker and has not looked back. Chhetri credits Houghton for the turnaround. "He helped me transform from an individual player to a team man," he said during the course of the AFC Cup.

On his part, Houghton complimented the work ethics and skills of the team's shortest player.

“For his height, he wins most of the aerial balls and that shows his fighting ability."

For now, Chhetri has formed a great partnership with Bhutia upfront and the duo mesmerised Tajikistan's defence to book a berth in the 2011 Asian Cup.