Sunil Chhetri likely the lone starter from ISL final against Myanmar

Mar 21, 2023 08:49 PM IST

“You can definitely expect many from Manipur to start,” says India head coach Igor Stimac ahead of the tri-nation tournament opener

Sunil Chhetri is likely to be the only player from Saturday’s final of the Indian Super League (ISL) who will start for India in the first match of Hero Tri-nation International Football Tournament, against Myanmar in Imphal on Wednesday.

The Indian team at a training session in Imphal ahead of Wednesday's opening game against Myanmar in the tri-nation invitation football tournament
The Indian team at a training session in Imphal ahead of Wednesday's opening game against Myanmar in the tri-nation invitation football tournament

Chhetri had barely settled on the bench in Goa when Sivasakthi Narayanan banged his nose on Ashique Kuruniyan’s shoulder and had to be replaced. From the fourth minute, Chhetri, 38, played all evening, converting a penalty at the stroke of half-time and again in the tie-breaker as Bengaluru FC lost 5-6 to ATK Mohun Bagan. The find of ISL, according to India head coach Igor Stimac, being unavailable means Chhetri could start for club or country only for the second time this year.

With the remaining eight players from Bagan and Bengaluru tired from travel, felicitations and the regular season, Stimac is likely to try to get them ready for Saturday’s game against Kyrgyz Republic. That means goalkeeper Amrinder Singh may get his first start since the away friendly to Nepal on September 5, 2021. Having made his India debut in 2017, Singh, 29, has been Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s understudy but played all 21 games for Odisha FC in ISL9.

Stimac saying at Tuesday’s press conference in Imphal that “you can definitely expect many from Manipur to start tomorrow” could also mean a new centre-back pairing. Chinglensana Singh could be the senior partner in inner defence, and given that Stimac wants to try new players in the year of preparations for the Asian Cup finals, Mehtab Singh could play alongside.

Barring midfielder Suresh Wangjam and full back Naorem Roshan Singh, who played in the ISL final, and East Bengal’s Naorem Mahesh Singh, a late call-up after Glan Martins was injured on Saturday, all Manipur-born players are likely to start. That would mean Jeakson Singh in central midfield and Bipin Singh as left attacker. With Manvir Singh being rested, Chhetri may be the targetman in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Lalianzualla Chhangte, ISL’s player of the season, as right-side forward.

Myanmar lead 11-9 in head-to-head wins but India beat them away in March 2017 with Chhetri scoring in the 90th minute off an Udanta Singh assist. The return leg of the 2019 Asian Cup qualifier ended 2-2 with goals from Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua helping India come back from being 0-2 in the first half.

Myanmar are 159th in the FIFA rankings; India 106th. At 94, Kyrgyz Republic are the highest ranked team in the competition. Myanmar have not won since beating Timor Leste 2-0 in December 2021, having lost 11 of their 13 games going into Wednesday’s match. India have won three of their last five games – all in the Asian Cup qualifiers last June – drew against Singapore and lost to Vietnam.

“India is probably too strong, and maybe we have no chance against them,” Myanmar coach Michael Feichtenbeiner told reporters in Imphal. “We are here to improve our performance, and to build our future.”


    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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