As promised, there was no Sunil Chhetri on the team sheet. “I have to protect him,” repeated national coach Stephen Constantine after India’s friendly against Nepal in Mumbai. The captain had torn a hamstring at the Federation Cup a few weeks back, but made a hastened recovery to feature in the AFC Cup for his club Bangalore FC.
Constantine though, needs the over-worked Chhetri rested and revving to go for next week’s Asian Cup qualifier against Kyrgyz Republic. So, even though the rankings suggested a mismatch between India and Nepal on Tuesday’s friendly, one of the coach’s targets was to get a glimpse of how his team would perform without the 32-year-old. Over the past season, it has been the rise of Jeje Lalpekhlua that has provided Chhetri, the country’s highest goal scorer, some respite from the pressure he faces.
On the night that India notched up a 2-0 win against the visitors at the Andheri Sports Complex, it was no different, as Jeje was involved in both goals, setting up the first and netting the second. The result suggests a straight-forward win against a team ranked 73 places lower than India’s 100th spot. Yet at best, it was a patchy effort, save for Jeje’s composure. Throughout the game, the 26-year-old stormed up the pitch, both on and off the ball, combining with teammates to create chances and winning headers.
In as early as the fifth minute, the diminutive yet powerfully built forward flicked on a header to strike-partner Robin Singh, only for a Nepal defender to steal the ball from the Delhi-lad’s feet. Half an hour later, he played a measured pass forward to Eugeneson Lyngdoh, who needed only to connect, but mishit his shot.
But he had to wait till the 60th minute for any of it to count. Sneaking into the box, inexplicably unmarked, he positioned himself well to collect Bikash Jairu’s cross from the right flank. His back to goal, he merely chested down perfectly for Sandesh Jhinghan, who lashed home a left-footed half volley into the top corner.
Till then, India had proved toothless in finishing. Especially since Jeje had taken up the creator’s role rather than that of the finisher. “We dominated but didn’t put away the chances,” Constantine said. “We were good in patches, but need to improve.”
Nepal in fact, had created the better chances in the first half. The best came at the stroke of halftime. Played through from defence, striker Nawayug Shreshtha had gotten the better of Jhinghan, inviting stand-in captain Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to charge off his lines and throw in a slide tackle outside the box.
The custodian’s clearance bounced off Shreshtha though, and the striker was first to his feet, but shot wide of an open goal. Momentum shifted in India’s favour early after resumption, mainly due to change in strategy. With Robin substituted, Gurpreet would loft the ball upfield, targeting either Jeje — who used his strength to outmuscle the Nepal centre-backs to the ball — or the pacy wingers, Jairu and Holicharan Narzary, to chase down the flanks. It was in the 68th minute, that Jairu outpaced Nepal’s skipper Biraj Maharajan and was brought down just outside the box after being clear on goal.
Maharajan was shown a straight red, and the game turned wholly in India’s favour. But Jeje continued to create, his teammates could not find the target. India remained 1-0 up, until the Manipuri himself decided to take his first and only shot of the match, late in the 78th minute.
A clever bit of skill from Mohammed Rafique took him clear to the right corner, from where he delivered a low cross that Jeje coolly side-footed home for India’s second.
It was the Blue Tigers’ 12th win in the last 14 matches, seventh on the trot. But the record means nothing for the coach at present. “If we win another few in the qualifiers (and make it to the Asian Cup), then I’ll be happy,” he says.
The English-Cypriot made use of all his six substitutes through the length of the game, even handing a debut to 18-year-old defender Jerry Lalrinzuala. The friendly against Nepal was a chance for him to see whom he might want to field for the important second match against Kyrgyz Republic in Bangalore next week. But in terms of assessing how the team played in Chhetri’s absence, it was Jeje, the veteran’s usual strike partner who seamlessly took up the reins.